Turkey recovered amazingly rapidly from the economic and financial crisis and is now booming once more. A delicate social transition is beginning to reveal itself – only to be immediately checked again. The country is changing at a frenzied pace and yet somehow standing still.
Economic crisis managed
Anyone who compares the Istanbul of today with that of 20 years ago will hardly recognize the city. High rises, clubs and bars, artists from all over the world, insane traffic, the museums and lovingly restored city centre are all signs of a rapidly developing metropolis. These changes are not just manifest in Istanbul; they are also visible further east in the country. The so-called "Anatolian Tigers", cities such as Erzurum or Gaziantep in eastern Turkey, have been booming for a few years now. The entire country is on the rise and undergoing upheavals.
The Turkish economy managed to weather the economic and financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 with an almost uncanny ease. In 2010, just one year after the crisis, Turkey climbed to number 17 of the largest domestic economies in the world. For a number of years it has been viewed as a transition country and, according to the World Bank, numbers among the states in the "upper-middle income category". It has 74 million inhabitants and the population is still growing – somewhat more slowly, but steadily.
Three times more income, but not for everyone
Turkey's economic figures are fantastic. The per capita income of the Turks has tripled since 2002 and is now more than 10,000 US dollars. But as prosperity increases, so do inequalities. In the large cities in particular, now home to over 70 percent of the country's population, the divide is growing ever wider. The majority of those in rural areas, in contrast, are fairly equally poor. The migration of rural people to the cities therefore continues unabated. The youth unemployment rate is high compared to other OECD countries – hardly surprising, since the Turkish population is overall quite young with an average age of 29.
A proportion of these young people, generally in the cities, is very well educated and contributing to the country's current dynamism. In the eastern rural regions in particular though, the rate of illiteracy is high – and the majority of those who cannot read and write are women.
The AKP and women
"Turkey likes to boast that it has achieved equality for women with the Kemalist reforms", claims teacher Selma Öztürk. "And that is true – but only for the elites. Equality has simply passed large segments of the population by without leaving a trace. There is still a lot that needs to be done." Öztürk works at an Istanbul school and is dedicated to improving schooling for girls, especially in East Anatolia. She adds: "it is shocking that whether girls should go to school is still an issue." In the late 90s, compulsory school attendance was extended to eight years, but implementation is still very inadequate in some areas – and particularly in Anatolia.
Here the ruling AKP party enjoyed fantastic election results during the most recent parliamentary election in early summer 2011. It would, however, be wrong to assert that the success of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan's party was based on the high level of illiteracy in Anatolia. Quite the opposite in fact: the "Anatolian Tigers" did not really begin to thrive until after the AKP took over the government in 2002. Cities like Gaziantep and Erzurum have grown into powerful economic centres of their regions.
After 2002, the AKP continued to strictly adhere to the structural reforms enacted by the previous government. The former Minister of Economic Affairs, Kemal Dervis, an internationally respected economist (his name was also bandied about as Strauss-Kahn's successor at the International Monetary Fund) had prescribed a radical reform course for the country. The AKP was then able to reap the rewards, in part due to the economic boom at the start of the 21st century.
But for every proponent there is – or there at least seems to be – a feverish opponent. Resistance reached a preliminary climax in 2008 when proscription proceedings were initiated against the party, though these were ultimately rejected. In 2012 as well, the moderate Islamist course of the AKP and the party's attitude toward Turkey's Kemalist legacy are dividing Turkey like almost no other topic ever has before.
Society rapidly gaining ground
Yet the AKP years have also been shaped by the slowly increasing empowerment of civil society. The number of non-governmental organizations – like Selma Öztürk's association – is growing, and a large number of them are involved in empowering women and girls. But this development has focused almost exclusively on the cities to date.
At the same time, an above average number of journalists have been arrested over the past year. The charges were almost always "support of a terrorist group". This refers to involvement with the suspected Ergenekon secret society or Kurdish organisations. The arrests are seldom supported by evidence, though the journalists are often ones who, like Istanbul-native Ahmet Şık, are researching the secret society.
For years now, Şık has written about the military's plans for a coup and about the "deep state", as the network of politics, security forces and organized crime is called here, that is rumoured to be pulling many of the political strings from behind the scenes. He also gathers and publishes information on Ergenekon, evidence of the secret society's existence, and exposes the criminal links of some of its members. Still he was prosecuted together with other alleged Ergenekon members and held for over a year behind the walls of a high-security prison.
In the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 138 – of the 178 countries assessed. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of this, Şık and many other journalists continue to write and broadcast in protest of the limitations placed on their freedoms. They blame the entire system rather than the AKP. In the eyes of many journalists in fact, the AKP is the most democratic force in a state that remains undemocratic. This is why demands for a new constitution or at least sweeping constitutional reforms are growing ever louder.
The European Union is also demanding a clear commitment to more freedom and constitutional reform. But over the past two years Turkey's accession process into the EU has slowed considerably, if it has not quite ground to a halt. A certain feeling of EU fatigue is also spreading through the population as a whole. Comparisons are widely made to Romania or the financially ailing Portugal in which neither country fairs particularly well. Current reactions almost seem defiant, inspiring many in Europe to refer to Turkey's newfound self-confidence.
After elections in early summer 2011, the AKP has again resumed its efforts to work towards a new "civil" constitution. The prognoses from all camps are bleak though. Deep ideological differences divide the parties in the Turkish parliament. Disagreement about the Kurdish question and how to deal with the Kemalist legacy in particular are viewed as simply insurmountable. This is why the party had hoped for a two-thirds majority from the most recent elections, though they fell short.
Efforts to move towards a new constitution which no one seems to really believe in; limited freedom of the press and opinion, the slowly growing strength of civil society; the modernity of the cities, the poverty in many rural areas; the booming economy that seems to be outpacing everyone – Turkey is a contradiction in and of itself. The country is changing with rapid speed, though it also seems to be simply running in place.
Eurostat, European Commission
Statistical Office of Turkey
Federal Centre for Political Education, Germany