Evaluating Erdogan

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently there have been demonstrations against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The demonstrations began because the government was intending to demolish a park in Istanbul (not Constantinople) and replace it with a shopping mall. This relatively pedestrian protest escalated when the Turkish government removed the protesters in a violent police raid. The target of the protests has now expanded from the park to the policies of Erdogan more broadly, specifically the social conservatism of his government and its tendency to give preference to Islam in its legislation. A lot of people in the media in developed states have begun referring to this as a “Turkish Spring”, and the default reaction has been to support the protesters, assuming that they are under governments similar to those that prevailed in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other such places. The instinct is to view Turkey as just another Middle Eastern country protesting a generically malevolent government. A poor job has been done of evaluating the Turkish situation specifically, of giving the Erdogan government a fair evaluation. Today, I’d like to contribute to rectifying that.

Has Erdogan been good for Turkey? He took office in March of 2003, so we have more than a full decade of data to analyze.  Turkey is a developing country, and consequently the first thing we have to look at when evaluating its leadership is its economic stewardship. Let’s have a look at Turkey’s growth numbers:

We see that Erdogan takes over in the midst of a recovery from a recession in the early 00’s and presides over consistent growth until the global economic crisis, produces a recovery, but has, in recent times, experienced a near-stagnant growth rate. While Turkey’s small growth rate might be enviable in Western Europe, Turkey’s level of development is lower and consequently its growth expectations are higher. The recent low growth may be contributing to Turkish dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s government. Nonetheless, Erdogan’s record on growth is fairly comparable with other countries at similar levels of economic development. Argentina makes for the best comparison–its per capita GDP is very similar to Turkey’s, and the Kirchners (Nestor and Cristina) have also ruled there since 2003. Let’s see how it has done over the same period:

Like Turkey, Argentina emerged from an early 00’s recession around the time the new government took power, followed it with steady growth mostly between 5 and 10%, a slow-down during the global economic crisis (where Turkey’s disproportionate suffering is likely due to its strong trade relationship with Europe), an initial recovery, followed recently by low growth. Interestingly, April saw significant protests in Argentina, and once again these protests targeted the government’s authoritarianism–I see a possible pattern here.

It would appear that in both the Argentine and Turkish cases, people have been tolerating a government they otherwise find overly intrusive purely because it brings with those intrusions a higher standard of living. When the growth goes, the accusations of authoritarianism spring up. These governments are finding it quite difficult to restore the growth they were lauded for providing in the current global economic climate, but their populations nonetheless blame them for the slow down.

The policies enacted by these governments that brought about strong, steady growth are still in place, but their traction in this climate is reduced. Erdogan has more than quadrupled the size of Turkey’s education budget during his term in office–it is now the largest ministry in the country. He has also doubled the number of universities and provided free health care to Turkey’s children. Impressively, this investment in the future of Turkey has been done efficiently–the government’s debt to GDP ratio has been nearly cut in half during Erdogan’s premiership:

Inflation has been tamed:

And the government is trying to fight off the global economic crisis with monetary loosening, to its credit:

Yet the results, at least recently, have not been there, so the elements of government policy that most aggrieve young people in Turkey–the deep-seated social conservatism of the government–have had the light thrown on them:

Make no mistake about it, these policies are bad policies. Erdogan’s restrictions on speech thwart the fair and free exchange of ideas. His attempts to revoke abortion rights would put the health of Turkey’s women at risk and increase the number of unwanted children born. His policies on alcohol verge on prohibition–they are unenforceable and will create crime and and reduce the public’s respect for the law. The preference Erdogan gives to Turkish Muslims over secularists and Kurds in his legislation amounts to the violation of the principle of equal concern. The government is concerned with the welfare of some citizens over and above the welfare of others, and attempts to make lifestyle decisions for its people that fall outside the boundaries of Mill’s harm principle. These are all very legitimate grievances against Erdogan and the Turkish government more broadly.

That said, I would hope that, if the Turkish people do decide to rid themselves of this government, they find a replacement with the requisite economic acumen to continue or expand Erdogan’s investments in health, education, and the future of Turkey. I would hope that new government would have the wisdom to lower interest rates further to improve growth figures and, if they exhaust monetary policy, to consider fiscal stimulus. I would hope that it would strengthen trade relationships outside of Europe, so that Turkey’s economy is less tied to the Eurocrisis. In sum, I would hope that seeking a government willing to permit the Turkish people the freedom, autonomy, and equal concern central to their utility and well-being would not entail a loss of economic competence. For a country like Turkey, attempting to reassert its significance in the world and bring its standard of living up to that highly developed standard, a loss of economic competence would be a tragic and heavy price to pay for a bit more liberalism. Is the Turkish opposition up to the task of doing both things well? I haven’t enough knowledge of the inner workings of Turkish politics to say.