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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times -January 8, 2014

by Ian Bremmer

Now among the world’s most dynamic emerging markets, Turkey has proven a remarkable success story in recent years. In the decade since Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first rose to power, economic growth has broadened beyond the traditional northwestern Istanbul-Ankara-Izmir triangle and the well-connected secular elite to include new companies and investors from the country’s heartland. Per capita income has tripled in nominal terms, and Turkey has become an influential actor on the global stage.
That’s why the rising tide of political turmoil in Turkey is so disheartening. Many outside the country were shocked when angry demonstrators filled the streets of Turkey’s largest cities last summer. What began as a dispute over a commercial development plan in central Istanbul became a hostile confrontation between protesters and police – and then a test of Mr Erdogan’s political temperament. His sometimes dismissive, sometimes belligerent response to political and public criticism further fuelled public anger.
The latest headline battle involves a corruption scandal that has provoked the resignation or dismissal of several cabinet members, accusations against Mr Erdogan’s sons, and charges from the prime minister and his supporters that an ongoing investigation into the matter is politically motivated. Mr Erdogan has fired hundreds of police officers and replaced prosecutors in a bid to obstruct the investigation’s progress.
The controversy has triggered an all-out political brawl in a country that badly needs to address its deeper shortcomings. Given a crowded election calendar – local elections in March, the first-ever direct election for president in the summer, and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, but which could come sooner – these risks are converging and coming to a head.
First, there is the state of the economy. A large current account deficit and the private sector’s large foreign exchange debt leave Turkey especially vulnerable to policy uncertainty in general and the “tapering” of the US Federal Reserve’s bond buying program in particular. Further, despite its recent decision to tighten monetary policy, Turkey’s central bank will remain under considerable political pressure not to hike interest rates during election season, unless market pressures force the issue.
The country also faces significant threats to its security. Like Iraq, Turkey is increasingly vulnerable to a spillover of violence from Syria. Since the start of the Syrian crisis, Turkish authorities have covertly supported opposition groups in Syria, some with links to al-Qaeda, to help bring down the regime of President Bashar al Assad. Under mounting US pressure, however, Turkey has greatly diminished its support for these groups, heightening the risk of an al-Qaeda-linked attack on Turkey.
More broadly, the intensification of sectarian passions in the region has entered Turkey’s politics. Mr Erdogan will prepare for elections by working to shore up his nationalist/conservative base, exacerbating already growing sectarian tensions between Sunni and Alevi communities. There is also the potential re-emergence of the country’s Kurdish insurgency. Mr Erdogan’s drive to mobilise his electoral base has reversed his recent outreach to Kurds, pushing the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) toward collapse. A PKK ceasefire announced last spring will probably break down after local elections in March, triggering a new round of guerrilla activity by summer.
Then there are the country’s principal political risks, each of which centres on Mr Erdogan. The prime minister’s aggressive response to last summer’s protest movement and his ambitions of becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president might well encourage protesters to again take to the streets. Unless Mr Erdogan’s response is uncharacteristically conciliatory, street confrontations will threaten once again to take on a life of their own – and in the middle of an election campaign.
In addition, there is the long-simmering rivalry between Mr Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, co-founders of the ruling party. Party rules prohibit Mr Erdogan from serving a fourth term as AKP chairman, pushing him to try to build a new base of power as president. A September battle over party leadership will sharpen the conflict as Mr Erdogan tries to block Mr Gul from leading the AKP and to thwart his ambitions of becoming prime minister by pushing forward a loyalist for the post.
Turkey’s various troubles are also bad news for other governments, because Mr Erdogan will continue to try to divert public attention from troubles at home by attacking foreign businesses and by advancing foreign conspiracy theories about Israel and the west.
Since he was first elected prime minister nearly 11 years ago, Mr Erdogan has won his share of credit for transforming a historically unstable country into an emerging market star. His country is the better for it. But his domineering style, an unwillingness to brook criticism, and a willingness to compromise Turkey’s rule of law to beat back personal rivals has created an increasingly volatile political environment.
That’s the last thing his newly vulnerable country needs.

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