2023 will mark 100 years of Turkish Republic. When it was established in 1923, Turkey was a low tier economy based on colonial trade, agriculture, a dwindling manufacture based on non-Muslims who were immigrating. Starting in the 30’s the country witnessed the development of a national bourgeoisie and with it, a working class. Today, Turkey is the 16th biggest economy in the world with a flourishing IT sector and a high tech industry thanks to the qualified and educated portion of the workforce. Although heavy industry still has a considerable role, the shift is obvious. AKP’s current neoliberal economic policies demolished the international borders, at least for businessmen. The assertive target of AKP’s 2023 vision is to become one of the 10 biggest economies. It should not be considered presumptuous for the foreseeable future. Obviously, the downfall of European economies and the rising star of Turkey will be helpful for this vision. However, numbers on their own do not mean much without the humane touch.
A striking example is about income inequalities: Turkey ranks 29th in 30 OECD countries just before Mexico in GINI coefficient. In other words, it is worse than the USA which is infamous for its unequal wealth distribution. If you can stroll around a Turkish metropolitan area in a normal day, social outcomes of the income inequality are striking. Just a week ago, the main opposition party revealed the tragic case of a baby, Kübra, starved to death. Of course it is inconceivable for a country to become one of the “big 10″ when babies die of starvation. The wealth on its own does not mean anything for the unemployed, starving, silenced masses unless it is distributed. In the same vein, what is the use of such a pompous target when only 12 percent of the Turkish people had internet access in their households back in 2005, the lowest percent in OECD countries. Even that 12 percent could not use the internet freely back then just as today. Turkey is on its path to become one of the notorious 15, ‘enemies of the internet’. Reporters without Borders added Turkey to its watch list in 2010. Turkish agencies under the government have banned websites such as Youtube, blogging pages, sexually explicit material, sites considered anti Islamic such as Charles Dawkins’s and obviously anti regime sites. Just last Sunday on May 15, Istanbul witnessed one of the biggest protests with more than 50,000 people protesting internet bans. Turkey would be the only case in the “big ten” to ban such a basic freedom. These examples give a clear idea of how Turkey working on its way to become a “great” economy is actually a black comedy, reminding us of the Cohen Brothers.
Of course, the scandalous cases regarding religious and ethnic minorities are another dark side of the moon. However, as the biggest minority in the country, Kurds carry most of the burden on their shoulders. Southeastern Turkey, which is highly populated with the Kurdish population of Turkey, traditionally lags behind today as it did a decade ago. Even if internal migration slowed down in recent years, repercussions of massive migration are clear. Lack of integration and social corruption ignites hate speech from both sides. Non Kurdish citizens have a difficult time tolerating the Kurdish customs. Whereas Kurds became notorious for using violent means whenever they feel oppressed. In this respect, both sides have been alienating each other. Just yesterday, two volunteers working for an ultra nationalist independent candidate in my district handed over a pamphlet. I couldn’t believe my eyes as what I read was a proper hate crime, reminding me of early Nazi Germany’s attitude against Jews. According to this pamphlet; “The Kurdish population in Istanbul must be cleaned, we all should ‘sweep’ our streets from them.” This simple yet striking sentence reflects the gravity of hatred in Istanbul, the most multicultural and metropolitan urban center in Turkey. However, most of the time, well off Kurds do not have any problem becoming a part of the “Istanbul elite” also labelled as White Turks. And Turks don’t find it hard to mingle with Kurds in similar economic situations. Although the term sounds as if it has an ethnic connotation, there are many ‘White Kurdish Turks’ if one can put it that way. All in all, income inequality reflects itself upon the Kurdish population’s as well as other minorities’ identity issues even if economy is not the basis of such deficits.
However, on top of problems surrounding ethnic identity and social inequality is the change of the economic elite in recent years after AKP formed the government. The Turkish bourgeoisie was confined to a global, elitist, commerce-minded secular class a decade ago. Recent years have witnessed rise of the old “periphery”: Anatolian bourgeoisie is still very much equal to its predecessor, the Anatolian Tigers. These two terms mean the same thing but the former implies the shift in the economic elite. Yet, the recent rise of the ‘Anatolian’ bourgeoisie implies several things. Anatolian bourgeoisie is considered to be related to this or that Islamic sect. Thus the name “Islamic Calvinists” because they are formed to thrive in a capitalist structure. Unlike their secular counterparts, these elite circles create very strong patronage relationships based on a pious community (cemaat) or the specific sect (tarikat). One can see traces of such patronage ties in work during applications and interviews to public offices these days, thanks to AKP’s public employment processes. The most recent example for such corruption happened in a countrywide university entrance exam. More than 1.5 million students took the exam in which there was a code for correct answers and most probably cheating. Lack of accountability and traces of cheating cast doubt on how objective the government and its own economic forces are when it comes to employment. One prominent religious community for such economic benefit is known as the Gülen Movement. This movement is the biggest within such religious communities and it has a massive economic power with a social network of students being prepared for public offices, Anatolian bourgeoisie and important figures within higher echelons of judiciary and bureaucracy. The head of the agency which prepared the corrupt university entrance exam is said to be a follower of the Gülen Movement. It will be curious to see how Turkey will enter to 2023 with the Gülen Movement’s day to day consolidation of its economic power. These communities’ tactics of micromanaging the public and private economic as well as political initiatives could be very chaotic in the near future. Consolidation of wealth in specific pious communities with very strong patronage relations may lead to serious insufficiencies with respect to Turkey’s regime based on secular social and economic policies. A slow reformation of the secular basis of Turkey has started causing discomfort in various political groups. Augmentation of this problem can cause serious disruptions within economy as well.
All the crucial and realistic reasons why Turkey can miss its goal of becoming one of the “big 10″ comes to social reasons in the end. It will be interesting to watch Turkey right after the June 12 general elections and see how things unfold. Rather than technocrats aiming for the “big 10″, it seems as if Turkey needs successful politicians working for social peace, welfare and tolerance.
For more of Kerem’s writing, check his blog http://www.allaboutmideast.com/
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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