Part of Where to Bet Now

Six Markets to Watch: Turkey

How Erdogan Did It -- and Could Blow It

Ottoman of the people: an Erdogan election poster, Istanbul, June 2011 (Osman Orsal / Courtesy Reuters)

For much of last year, Turkey’s economy seemed almost on top of the world. In May, as huge construction projects moved ahead, Ankara paid off its remaining debt to the International Monetary Fund, ending what seemed to many Turks a long history of humiliation. The country received an encouraging investment-grade rating, and foreign funds poured in like never before.

In a flurry of appearances that month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan feted record-low interest rates, a slide in the unemployment rate from 15 percent to nine percent since 2009, and, above all, the growth that Turkey has enjoyed “due to reforms carried out over the past ten years.” He underlined his point -- and his driving ambition -- on an exuberant visit to Washington. Addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he noted that when his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, at least 20 other economies were bigger than Turkey’s in terms of dollar output. “Now, we are 17th,” he exulted, “and in due course, we are going to be among the ten largest economies.”

The Turkish economy has indeed come a long way during Erdogan’s decade in office, propelling Ankara’s ascent to greater global prominence. In the late 1990s, Turkey was running 90 percent inflation and attracting almost no foreign investment. As recently as 2002, Turkey was using up almost 90 percent of its tax revenues to pay the interest on its debt. Today, these problems have all but disappeared.

But the optimism of May has since faded. Turkey, like many other developing countries, has found itself facing skittish markets, volatile exchange rates, political unrest, and an uncertain outlook. The picture of Turkey today is less flattering but more revealing than before, displaying both the promise and the perils of being an $800 billion emerging economy.

Turkey is still on track to grow faster than much of the industrialized world in the coming years. In October, Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, hailed the country as “an inspiration to many developing countries.” But the fact remains that Turkey’s success could yet unravel. To live up to its economic potential, Turkey will have to overcome two main challenges: its reliance on fickle foreign funds and the intrusion of heavy-handed politics into its economic life.

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