Why Turkey’s transformation is confusing
I have been hearing two seemingly contradictory tales about Turkey’s transformation lately. One ends with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) election victory in 2002, while the other begins with it. Both are wrong. Turkish history is one continuum, if you ask me. Without President Turgut Özal’s legacy pre-2002, we would not have had President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan post-2002.
Even the epistemological break with the establishment of the Republic was hatched in the late Ottoman period. It was soldiers of the empire who led the Liberation War and shaped the events that changed Turkey beginning in 1919. It was they who rejected the Sevres agreement, a Turkish Versailles. The path-breaking reforms of the Republic were born of the dreams of the Ottoman intelligentsia, and not only among those in Istanbul but also those in Cairo. However, economic and social transformation only happened in Anatolia, and not on the Nile. Why? If you ask me, our founding fathers were realists, shaped by the crucible of a crumbling empire. The Egyptians had no comparable experience.
But why these conflicting tales? Forget about current events. Just try to imagine the deep political, social and economic transformation in Asia Minor after the Republic. Turkey, a country without oil in the Middle East, has transformed itself from a low income to a middle income country, and did so within the span of one lifetime, my lifetime. I was born in the early 1960s, when 70 percent of Turks lived in rural areas. This figure didn’t change much at first, still hovering at around 60 percent in the early 1980s. Then, the country’s rural population halved through rapid industrialization. It now stands below 30 percent and will most likely dwindle further in the coming years, nearing its end.
I find this to be a remarkable achievement. To be sure, Turkey is no Asian miracle, but when it comes to urbanization it cuts a miraculous figure. These two conflicting images of Turkey are very much related to the rapid pace of this transformation. Yes, Turkey has been on a growth spurt since 2002, but that cannot be thought about separately from its blitz-urbanization a few decades earlier.
This also explains some of the inconsistencies we see in Turkey today. Here we have a population that is around 75 percent urbanized, but only about 50 percent has access to the Internet. Turkey’s first transformation story hasn’t ended, while the second is already well on its way.
Imperfect as it may be, that is no trivial thing. I was looking at the comparative governance indicators graph compiled by World Bank experts for the recent “Turkey’s Transformations” report. Just compare Turkey with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Turkey is MENA’s champion in five different governance indicators - ranging from accountability to corruption. Look at Egypt, for example. According to World Bank data, Egypt and Turkey had the same 44 percent urbanization rate in the early 1980s. Egypt is still at 43 percent, while Turkey is past 70 percent now. Vast areas of Turkey stand transformed, while Egypt remains Egypt. We somehow achieved that mysterious thing that politicians always promise but rarely ever deliver: Change. That may explain Turkey’s presumed soft power in the region. It may also help explain the conflicting views of Turkey’s transformation.
Now, please take another look at the graph. If you compare Turkey to Korea, or with the OECD average, it is severely underperforming in selected governance indicators. In that sense, we are a country suffocating to live in the 21st century.
Remember the old Chinese saying, “When you start climbing the mountain, your perspective changes.” Transformation is a dizzying process, without a clear beginning and endpoint. It will take time to reach clarity.
Source: World Bank, 2014, “Turkey’s Transitions: Integration, Inclusion, Institutions”, pg. 254