How to think about ‘Turkey’s Great Normalization’

How to think about ‘Turkey’s Great Normalization’

In 1980, Turkey’s GDP per capita was around $1,500. It was $3,600 in 2002 and by 2008 it had reached $10,000. Then it stalled. Was that halt only because of the global financial crisis? I don’t think so. The convergence of Turkey’s per capita GDP to that of the United States also stalled at the same time. 

The year 2007 is a turning point in annual growth figures. In the 2002-2007 period, the Turkish economy enjoyed annual growth of around 7 percent on average. The same number for the 2008-2014 period was a mere 4.88 percent, despite massive quantitative easing in the U.S. and funds flowing to developing countries like Turkey.

There is a pattern here - and it does not end with economic averages. Turkey is due to hold a referendum this April to amend the constitution and introduce an executive presidential system. This government has amended the constitution extensively since 2002, but not all changes are the same. Again, 2007 is the cutoff year. 

Turkey amended its constitution a few times in the 2002-2007 period through parliamentary voting. After 2007, however, the political consensus narrowed and that became impossible. In that year we held a referendum to change the constitution, followed by a second change in 2010. The upcoming referendum is going to be our third referendum on constitutional changes this decade. 

Why? The constitutional changes between 2002 and 2007 were largely passed in order to adjust to the famous Copenhagen criteria of the EU. Turkey became an EU member candidate country in 2004, and this vision brought together many of the country’s various political traditions. That vision brought prosperity and order. After 2007, Turkey diverged from the EU path, and Europe also sadly did the same. After the 2008 global financial crisis, our European friends stopped thinking about Turkey as a serious partner and possible EU member. As a result, Turkey’s Europeanization became overly bureaucratized and too Brussels-centered. Things got stuck.

Another big thing happened in 2007. Turkey has always had an idiosyncratic system of checks and balances. It never properly separated the powers of the judiciary, executive and legislative branches. We have always two, not three, branches of power: The Presidency and the Prime Ministry. Presidents had control over the judiciary and the military while prime ministers controlled parliament and single-handedly led the executive branch. People didn’t talk about it much, but that is how the system operated. Power struggles always took shape along those lines. 

That de facto system ended in 2007 with the term of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Turkey has ever since been in a “political normalization process,” which has at times been turbulent. It is a pity that the EU process stalled right before Turkey entered this transition.

The transition has been turbulent. In April 2007, the military published a threatening message on its website, in an incident that came to be referred to as the “e-memorandum.” In retrospect, this move was clearly a sign of weakness rather than strength. In 2008, the chief public prosecutor filed a case with the Constitutional Court to shut down the political party in power. That was the year when the followers of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen became really popular in Ankara, and a group of Gülenist public prosecutors launched a show trial that initiated the first purge (of anti-Gülenists of course) in the military.

 That so-called Ergenekon case was followed by the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case in 2009. The purge continued, opening the state’s arteries for infiltration. The government eventually reigned in the virus, but not before it had destroyed its host.

What Turkey has yet to reach is a modern, liberal and effective system of checks and balances. Is it going to get one with the referendum this April? I think not. Is the referendum going to disperse the clouds of uncertainty over the Turkish economy? I doubt it. Turkey still has a long way to go in its normalization process. But I believe we can do it. 

It’s a pity that our European friends still have no strategy to engage Turkey with, deploying the EU anchor in order to smooth out the normalization process and strengthen Turkish stability. That would make things less costly for us, and less costly for our allies too. There is no reason why Turkey should be a spoiler of Western diplomacy in the region, but without proper engagement that is almost certainly what will happen.