Erdogan's Achilles' Heel

Why the Prime Minister Will Win the Election, but Lose the Economy

Erdogan supporters wave flags in a boat in Istanbul, August 3, 2014.
Erdogan supporters wave flags in a boat in Istanbul, August 3, 2014. (Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters)

Over the course of last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has surmounted some major obstacles. He crushed urban protests last summer. He cracked down on the followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen within the police and judiciary over the fall and winter. Electorally as well, Erdogan seems invincible: On Sunday, when Turkish voters head to the polls to elect a new president -- the first to be chosen by popular vote -- Erdogan is set to win in a landslide.

Erdogan has vowed to expand presidential power. He does not hide his ambition to become Turkey’s second founding father; in fact, he seems to aspire to be the anti-Atatürk, that is, to remake the secular republic that Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, built. Erdogan has vowed to raise “pious generations,” and frequently refers to a historic “mission” that he, “God willing,” will soon fulfill. His words are not empty. For one, the ongoing changes to Turkey’s secular education system are conspicuous; state-run secondary schools across Turkey are quickly becoming clerical institutions.

Still, it is not Islamist ideology that has sustained Erdogan’s power. It is the economy. Voters have kept him and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in office because the economic benefits the party has brought have outweighed other considerations. For example, waves of international capital during the last decade have led to booms in public and private consumption and construction. These have kept the Turkish economy growing.

The material foundations of Erdogan’s power, however, are not stable. Rahmi Koc, the honorary chairman of Koc Holding, Turkey’s biggest industrial conglomerate, recently warned that “The most important structural problem Turkey faces is its excessive reliance on foreign capital inflows.” Income levels have ceased to rise, and economic growth based on consumption and construction is usually not sustainable in the long run. In short, Turkey has become stuck in the classic middle-income trap. And the way out is well known: increase productivity, which requires a better educated population; encourage innovation, which requires a free intellectual atmosphere; and increase female participation in the workforce. Turning out more clerics than scientists, muzzling free speech, and urging, as Erdogan recently did, young women not to postpone marriage because of studies, is not going to help the Turkish economy advance.

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