Erdoğan’s choice: Reform or religion?

Erdoğan’s choice: Reform or religion?

After revealing the first nine on Nov. 6, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu unveiled seven more transformation programs of the government’s ambitious reform strategy at a press conference on Dec. 18.

The 425 actions plans suggest that not much thought has gone into prioritization based on the Turkish economy’s binding constraints. But even with such a grocery list, the government managed to miss some important issues. For example, the Istanbul International Finance Center Program has 104 action plans but still does not address key problems such as discretionary tax policy.

By the way, the finance center project is not a new idea. It was announced back in 2009 by economy czar Ali Babacan at the IMF-World Bank meetings. More than five years have passed since then, and not much progress had been made. I see no reason why it should be different this time.

My colleagues seem to agree. While many analysts and economy columnists made enthusiastic comments after Nov. 6, several did not even mention the new set of reforms, and those who did were much more reserved. I think the best part of Davutoğlu’s press conference was that he stated we would see the first results of the action plans by March-April. The sooner everyone sees that this so-called reform strategy is a wish list at best, the better.

It cannot be more than that because, at the end of the day, even if the bureaucrats have the best intentions, we cannot overlook the importance of political leadership. In a report published on Dec. 19, Trusted Sources, an emerging markets (EMs) research and consulting firm, underlines that “the importance of the political and personal agendas of the leaders has emerged as a major factor” explaining reform zeal.

In their reform rating for seven EMs, India, Indonesia, China and Mexico come out as best-poised to implement reforms, while “Brazil is on a knife edge in policy terms” and Turkey and South Africa are at the bottom. While South African President Jacob Zuma “is focused on survival in a fragmented political landscape,” “Erdoğan has other priorities- namely, building up his power and fighting foes from Gülenists to the interest rate lobby.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s short-term economic policy priority will be to boost the economy sufficiently to ensure a strong victory at the 2015 general elections. As for the longer run, he seems to be more interested in pushing his religion agenda through the education system than implementing reforms.

And for the right reasons: A new Economic Research Forum working paper shows, by analyzing data from survey firm Konda, that “an increase in educational attainment, due to an exogenous secular education reform [in 1997], decreased women’s propensity to identify themselves as religious, lowered their tendency to wear a religious head cover and increased the tendency for modernity”- not to mention “a negative impact on women’s propensity to vote for Islamic parties.”

Erdoğan claims drug use would spread among the youth if Turkey’s compulsory religion courses were abolished. In fact, he just wants the kind of education that will keep people voting for him. Other than that, he is probably no more interested in education than in reform.