BRICS: Add "T" for Turkey
How has Turkey’s prime minister succeeded in modernizing his country?
June 10, 2011
With parliamentary elections to be held this weekend and Prime Minister Erdogan and his AK Party enjoying a solid lead, nervous questions are being asked, especially about whether the Islamists will finally show their real face.
To gain a proper sense of perspective, it is best to base one’s analysis on the notion that Turkey is engulfed in a highly dialectic, and therefore often quite contradictory, reform process.
Turkey’s woes and wonders are not dissimilar to what contemporary China is undergoing. Both countries — and their respective leaderships — realize that moving such ancient civilizations into full-blown modernity is a complex process.
And regardless of all the soothsaying, reprimands and ideas coming from outsiders, the biggest responsibility is to find a model that accommodates the nation’s traditions, idiosyncrasies, handicaps and potential.
And measured against that very yardstick, the performance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the leader of Turkey’s moderate-Muslim AK Party — is as impressive as that of China’s Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.
When one gets to experience how the Turkish prime minister operates from up close, a stunning picture emerges: Here is a man who, with great intelligence, rhetoric and care, has shown himself more than up to the task of handling any challenge coming from a Westerner — or from his domestic opposition.
First and foremost, Mr. Erdogan comprehends the difference between nationalism and patriotism. He profoundly cares about the latter — and despises the former.
Why? Because he knows that nationalism of any kind is but a compensatory political action for social and economic deficiencies surfacing elsewhere in society.
Mr. Erdogan is a very ambitious man. While many Westerners wonder out loud when he will let the Islamist cat out of the bag, his real ambition — one he is not shy to admit — is to have as important an impact on Turkey and its future as Ataturk did in his time.
Rather than repress the religious issue — as was Ataturk’s choice (out of necessity, given the anti-modernist circumstances at the time) — Erdogan wants to blend it with economic and social progress and modernity.
Turkey’s prime minister has a keen sense of the trade-offs — and is determined to maintain a balance at all times. On the one hand, he wants religion to be part of the public sphere — because oppressing it is artificial.
On the other hand, he wants to do everything in his power to keep the religionists in check. If they were to be given free reign, that — in Erdogan’s view — would only set Turkey back as a country and an economic and social project. In short, it would hurt his patriotic pride in seeing Turkey realize its full potential.
Towards this end, one of his most impressive moves has been to pack his party’s future parliamentary ranks with a lot of newcomers. These “young Turks” are very much steeped in the modern world of business, economics, analysis and research.
The reason why is easy to discern. With his eyes keenly fixed on economic growth, he needs a lot of smart people helping him execute his strategy at all levels of government and of the political process.
Doing that with the “right believers,” steeped in religion, won’t work because Turkey’s real project is one of modernization.
And by adding young professionals and reformers to his political tent, Erdogan ultimately disempowers the old secularist forces. Until now, they had been the collecting ground for Turks with global skills and aspirations.
Young professionals went outside Turkey to gain experience — and when they came back the country’s “old guard” of (secular) political and business leaders gave them jobs and career tracks.
In contrast, there was nothing to be had with the religionist/Islamist/AKP wing of society.
Erdogan is also determined to work around the old business clans and conglomerates that in the past held the country’s economy in a stranglehold, often in an all-too-smooth symbiosis with the country’s military powers.
The AK Party’s political base is Turkey’s heartland — and that’s where one finds a lot of up-and-coming small and medium-sized businesses. Erdogan is determined to let them shine and bloom.
In that regard, he is emulating Germany’s long-term economic strategy of sporting a diversified manufacturing base not overly dependent on a few population centers.
But what is more important is that he and his business acolytes really represent a rejection of the false compromises engaged in by the secular business and political elites for decades.
Under Erdogan, business is still about making money — but is equally concerned with how its profitability contributes to the country’s progress, rather than just that of a small elite.
By the same token, the spreading wealth — and the general sense of economic progress that has finally pervaded the country well beyond the confines of Istanbul — is also why the once-reflexive and nervous questions about the importance of EU membership are becoming near-irrelevant.
Much like China or India, Turkey’s political and business leaders see themselves in a cycle of ascendance.
To be sure, there is much that is still in need of major reform — including the need to advance the role of women outside the country’s capital. However, the quickest social progress has often occurred when the underlying economy acted as a true accelerator to help a society live up to its full potential — by overcoming or abandoning old traditions when the time had come.
All in all, though, it is an amazing situation — notwithstanding the ominous geopolitical clouds amassing at Turkey’s southeastern borders.
Much like China or India, Turkey's political and business leaders see themselves in a cycle of ascendance.
Mr. Erdogan comprehends the difference between nationalism and patriotism. He profoundly cares about the latter — and despises the former.
Erdogan is emulating Germany's long-term economic strategy of sporting a diversified manufacturing base not overly dependent on a few population centers.