Erdogan’s Tightrope Walk: How Turkey’s Reform Project Ended in Isolation

Late in the summer of 1999, over 18,000 people lost their lives in an earthquake that struck northwestern Turkey. The high number of casualties was partly a consequence of massive migration within the country from Anatolia to the wealthier cities of western Turkey: Between the years 1980 and 1985 alone, the population of Istanbul exploded from 2.8 million to 5.5 million. Many of the new houses and apartment complexes in the cities of western Turkey were hastily erected and did not meet legal standards — many collapsed in the quake, burying under their rubble thousands of families’ dreams of joining the middle class.

The country’s traditional elite never recovered. The coalition government led by B├╝lent Ecevit collapsed after years of economic downturn and extreme rates of inflation. Parliamentary elections in November 2002 brought about a second earthquake, this time political. None of the established parties made it into the parliament, but the year-old, conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came out on top with over 34 percent of the votes. Turkey’s archaic majority electoral system gave the AKP almost two-thirds of the seats.

An unexpected liberalization of Turkish society followed: The press and the public enjoyed greater freedom of expression, and extensive economic reform programs were introduced. The Turkish military, notorious for staging numerous coups and for reckless clashes with Turkey’s Kurdish population throughout the 1980s and 1990s, was forced out of politics. After years of stagnation, Turkey under the AKP began to reap the benefits of modernization.

This article was originally published in Der Spiegel.