Turkey is a country of paradoxes. Ankara has been a NATO member since 1952 but is about to receive the S-400 air defense system from the transatlantic alliance’s main adversary, Russia, and consequently face sanctions from its longtime ally, the United States. Ankara has been undertaking accession negotiations with the European Union since 2005, but Turkish officials happen to be deeply Eurosceptic, frequently hurling insults at their European counterparts and targeting Western values.
Turkey’s puzzling contradictions are not limited to foreign and security policy, as the fault lines in its domestic politics, society, and culture demonstrate. The country’s polarized electorate comprises not only one of the staunchest supporters of secularism among majority-Muslim nations but also one of the most devout supporters of political Islam, as reflected in the enduring support for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan since 2002. The Turkish president’s fans and the dissidents who oppose his iron-fisted rule both seem to be deeply entrenched, precluding so far the possibility of significant voter swings across the country’s political divide.
Demographically, Turkey has one of the youngest populations in Europe with median age at 32,1 but it is also aging at the second-fastest pace among OECD countries, and will become an “aged society” by 2035.2 Three quarters of Turkey’s population now reside in urban centers,3 although rural mores and patterns of behavior continue to shape interactions in metropolitan centers.
Digitally, the country ranks among the very top in the world in terms of social media use while also having almost half of its population offline with little to no digital literacy skills.4 While Turkish internet users are the world’s most active Facebook users,5 Freedom House ranks the country as one of the most restrictive digital environments,6 as the government continues to ban Wikipedia, PayPal, and Booking.com, among others.7
These paradoxes are key to understanding Turkey’s acute governance deficit, and its transformation. Although the country’s ongoing descent into kleptocratic authoritarianism has severely restricted the space for deliberative democracy and good governance, unprecedented demographic and technological disruptions have the potential to reshuffle politics, society, and culture in Turkey. Such a reshuffle could either deepen the country’s governance deficit or put it back on track to build greater governance capacity.
Turkey’s Governance Deficit
Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the most prevalent feature of the Turkish polity has been its degree of centralization. The rise of nationalism during the 19th Century has led to the crumbling of multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, such as the Ottomans, as subject peoples gradually wrestled their independence from their imperial overlords. This process not only gave birth to a Turkish nation-state, but also to a Turkish political elite traumatized by the Ottoman collapse and deeply mistrustful of demographic diversity and devolution of powers to local governments and the citizenry. Over the last century, a key characteristic of the Turkish state and political elite has been their strong resistance to the principle of subsidiarity, delegation of powers, and the recognition and accommodation of diversity.
This ethos of hyper-centralism has also permeated the Turkish society and economy, impeding developments in both spheres. Turkey held its first free and fair elections in 1950 and succeeded in the first peaceful transfer of power from the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the opposition that year. Since then, a chain of military interventions, successful and failed, has punctuated the country’s multi-party democracy almost once a decade, obstructing the development of democratic institutions and processes. Similarly, the state’s heavy-handed and corrupting role in the markets has impeded the country’s attempts since the 1980s to transition to a liberal economic order and build an export-oriented industry.
The common thread that runs through Turkey’s failure to incorporate its Kurdish citizens, accommodate its religious minorities, respect rule of law, build pluralist democracy, secure market freedoms, and escape the middle income trap is the weakness of its institutions and their governance capacity. Optimists used to see Turkey’s European Union membership process as a magic wand, which would facilitate the building of inclusive and competent state and civic institutions, and thereby, paving the way for good governance. The European Parliament’s call in March 2019 for the European Union to end accession talks with Turkey, citing widespread abuses of human rights, shows that the process is a dead end and continues only on paper at this point.8
Turkey’s abortive coup of July 2016, the ensuing state of emergency, and the transition from a parliamentary system to a centralized presidential regime with the April 2017 referendum have terminated not only the country’s European Union membership aspirations but also any hope of building democratic governance. As Turkey’s democratic backsliding continues full speed under Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, the key to understanding and predicting the country’s trajectory will be the complex ways in which political, demographic, and digital cleavages resonate with one another.
The interplay among Turkey’s fault lines not only poses major threats but also offers significant opportunities. Such reverberations at times exacerbate challenges likely to spill over beyond nation state borders, and at others help mitigate such challenges, leading to positive externalities in the neighborhood and around the globe.
Given the increasing transnational, demographic, and digital flows, the radical transformations experienced by 82 million Turkish citizens, 6 million members of the Turkish diaspora who mainly reside in Western countries,9 and over 3.6 million displaced Syrians who have taken refuge in Turkey since 201110 will have repercussions beyond Turkey and its immediate neighborhood.
The polarized debates around Turkey’s key political, economic, social, and cultural issues also resonate deeply among the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims—a third whom are under the age of 15– as they energetically deliberate whether piety and observance could go alongside a secular, pluralistic, and liberal democratic polity and free market economy.11 Below are the most pertinent developments that present the greatest challenges and opportunities to Turkish decision makers, which could work either to deepen or bridge existing cleavages.
The Closing of the Demographic Window of Opportunity
Turkish politicians frequently boast of the country’s young population, contrasting it with the aging European Union, and have even praised the Turkish diaspora to be the “future of Europe.”12 Turkey’s median age, 32, is much lower than the median age in the European Union, which is nearing 43.13 The gap, however, is closing rapidly as Turkey’s median age is rising faster than other developing economies.14 In 1950, Turkey’s median age was below 20, but the country’s waning fertility rate, which has fallen by more than two thirds since 1960 to 2.1, converges its demographic trajectory with other European states.15
The demographic transition in Turkey has provided the country with a demographic window of opportunity, whereby the ratio of the working age population increased from 55 percent in the 1980 to its peak of 68 percent in 2016.16 Although such a window of opportunity has often correlated with economic growth in other developing countries, the realization of the “demographic dividend” is only possible by designing and implementing policies that tap into this human potential.17
Turkey’s Islamist government’s education policies have prioritized putting a religio-national straitjacket on students, deepening ethnic and sectarian prejudices while also failing to equip students with the skills necessary for success in the global economy. Equity and quality in education continue to be the key challenges of Turkey, as the country lags behind OECD countries in the worldwide rankings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).18 The study has also found that the Turkish students have the worst life satisfaction among 72 countries surveyed.19 Furthermore, the proportion of people aged 18–24 who are neither employed nor in education or training, namely the NEETs, has reached 33 percent last year, more than twice the OECD’s average rate of 15 percent.20 As Turkey’s unemployment rate hit a 10-year high in January 2019, the youth unemployment rose to 26.7 percent,21 showing how misguided policies could turn a relatively young population from an advantage into a major challenge.
What makes Turkey’s demographic challenge trickier is the disparity among the birth rates of different ethnicities. Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, who currently constitute around 15 percent of the population, have higher birth rates than the Turks, leading to analysis that they could eventually outnumber Turks.22 Given the Turkish government’s resistance to accommodating Kurdish language and culture and the obstacles it creates in providing equal opportunities, this will result in an increasingly disenfranchised and marginalized Kurdish underclass. The heavy-handed crackdown on pro-Kurdish parties and movements, and the criminalization of Kurdish political participation, will exacerbate Turkey’s Kurdish conflict, which has claimed over 40,000 lives over the last three decades,23 and over 4,000 since the reescalation of the fighting in 2015.24
The Transition from Sending to Receiving Country
Another demographic transformation that will have a major impact on governance is the changing migration patterns in Turkey. In 1961, Ankara signed a formal labor recruitment agreement with Berlin and started sending “guest workers” to Germany. As Turkey became the top “sending” country not only to Germany but also to other European countries, the size of the Turkish diaspora in the continent exceeded 5 million, as “guest workers” settled for good in those countries.25
The Turkish diaspora in and beyond the European Union comprises Turkish citizens who are permanent residents, dual nationals, naturalized citizens who have given up their Turkish citizenship as well as others born to a naturalized parent or parents. Regardless of their legal status, the Turkish diaspora continue to play a significant role in Turkish politics and economy.
Turkey granted its diaspora the right to vote with the 2014 presidential elections, and since then the diaspora voted in three parliamentary and two presidential elections as well as a referendum.26 In 2018, almost half of the 3 million registered diaspora voters cast their votes to elect the president and members of the parliament.27 Since the Turkish diaspora represents a unique demographic makeup, diaspora votes differ significantly from the national vote. While in the diaspora, the Islamist-rooted AKP and the pro-Kurdish HDP’s vote share was 10 and 5 percentage points higher, respectively, pro-secular CHP’s vote was 5 percentage point lower.28
The Turkish diaspora’s political influence is not limited to their votes. Turkey’s Islamist movement owes much of its political, economic, and social capital to the Islamist networks and activism abroad, particularly in Germany.29 Similarly, Turkey’s Kurdish diaspora have played a significant role in boosting pro-Kurdish politics in Turkey.30
The impact of migration patterns on Turkish politics started to change dramatically following the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, as Turkey was already transitioning from a “sending” country to a “receiving” country. Since then, Ankara has maintained an open-door policy and committed generous funds and resources—to the amount of $35 billion—currently hosting over 3.6 million displaced Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world.31
Turkey does not grant refugee status to Syrians, since Ankara still retains a geographical reservation to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, granting refugee status only to asylum seekers arriving from Europe. Hence, displaced Syrians receive protection and assistance under a temporary protection regime, with no clear path to permanent residency or Turkish citizenship.32 For the most part, they continue to be a marginalized and exploited underclass living under precarious conditions.33 Although the Turkish government’s use of Islamic symbolism to promote acceptance of fellow Syrian Muslims in need succeeded in keeping a lid on tensions between Turkish citizens and displaced Syrians so far, there seems to be a growing anti-immigrant sentiment, exacerbated by the economic downturn in the country.34 As Turkey’s Syrian population continues to grow—with almost 400,000 Syrians born in Turkey since 2011—the failure to integrate them politically and economically will deepen the country’s governance deficit.35
The Digital Divide: The Frontier and the Backwater
Turkey’s political, social, and demographic cleavages also extend from the offline world to online platforms. The country has a critical mass of connected individuals who represent the digital frontier, as well as tens of millions of citizens who are offline, with little or no digital literacy.36
The government has an ambivalent attitude toward information technologies and social media. On the one hand, the Turkish president sees social media as a “menace,”37 leading the world in blocking and censoring the internet and prosecuting online dissent.38 On the other hand, the government actively utilizes social media to manufacture consent, by employing an effective troll army to dominate online debates and intimidate dissident voices at home and abroad.39
Similarly, e-government technologies have helped bolster governance while also suppressing political participation and expression. Turkey’s e-government portal offers a wide range of public services within easy reach of the citizens, improving service delivery.40 At the same time, e-government portals have also become an effective tool for both the government and the ruling party to monitor and discipline citizens as well as maintain client networks. The Presidency’s Communication Center (CIMER),41 which was recently recognized by the International Telecommunication Union of the United Nations,42 is also notorious for being a surveillance portal where citizens inform on one another, leading to numerous frivolous lawsuits.43
Similarly, digital platforms have worked in contradictory ways to enhance political participation and bridge divides while also intensifying polarization. Although Turkey’s online interaction continues to be antagonistic and tribalized,44 reinforcing existing cleavages, it has also provided opportunities for social entrepreneurs. When Turkey’s opposition parties failed in setting up effective ballot box monitoring mechanisms, Oy ve Ötesi initiative used the power of the internet, information technologies, and volunteers to set up an alternative monitoring network.45 Fact-checking initiatives such as Doğruluk Payı and teyit.org used the powers of social media to counter fake news exploited by trolls to incite the public.46 An online portal, Avlaremoz, has become an effective portal to counter anti-Semitism,47 while KAOS GL used the internet to raise awareness about LGBTI issues among wide segments of the population.48
The future impact of digital technologies on governance in Turkey will depend to a large extent on the way in which successive Turkish governments deal with the country’s connected and disconnected segments. The country has an impressive talent pool, who have proven themselves to be effective social entrepreneurs and innovators. The divide between this connected group and the offline population, however, remains wider than ever. As Turkey’s deepening authoritarianism triggers brain drain and self-censorship, inhibiting participation and initiatives, the loss of digital talent could further hamper the efforts to bridge the digital divide and strengthen governance.49
Building Soft Infrastructure for Good Governance
A key strategy to address Turkey’s demographic and digital cleavages, hyper-centralized rule, and the ensuing governance deficit would be through investing in soft infrastructure. The ruling AKP’s trademark in politics has been investments in hard infrastructure, as the country’s resources have been disproportionately directed toward massive construction projects, fueling the construction bubble that is now coming to an end with the looming economic crisis.50
Although the government’s vanity projects, such as airports, bridges, tunnels, and high-rises, provided employment for unskilled labor, spoils for party loyalists, and campaign material for elections for over a decade, the unsustainability of that model is now more evident than ever.51
The massive investments in hard infrastructure went hand-in-hand with not only a neglect, but also a dismantling, of soft infrastructure, such as democratic institutions, regulatory agencies, rule of law, education, and financial regulations. The Turkish president’s consolidation of power and move toward hyper-centralization have come at the expense of Turkey’s institutions and checks and balances, further weakening the country’s soft infrastructure.
As Turkey’s hyper-centralized regime proves ineffective to address the challenges of governing the country’s ethnic, religious, social, and cultural diversity, the acute need for inclusive institutions, bridging mechanisms, and deliberative democratic capacity has become more evident than ever.
Hard infrastructure alone will prove to be useless in offering remedies to four key challenges mentioned above.
- The imminent crisis in the retirement, healthcare, and elderly care systems triggered by an aging society.
- The needs of over 3.6 million Syrian refugees, who continue to lack effective incorporation channels.
- The growing marginalization of Kurdish citizens, as paths to cultural recognition, economic integration, and political participation remain blocked.
- The growing political, economic, social, cultural, and digital polarization between the country’s frontier regions and populations and backwater areas.
It is yet to be seen whether Turkey can break from the path-dependency of centralist thinking and turn toward the principle of subsidiarity to empower local governments and citizens as stakeholders in a much-needed campaign to build and strengthen soft infrastructure and good governance.
Quo Vadis? Lessons from the 2019 Elections
Turkey held nationwide local elections on March 31, 2019, to elect mayors and city councilors to run 81 provincial and 1,317 sub-provincial municipalities for the next five years. 85 percent of the 57 million Turkish voters went to the polls on the heels of the country’s first economic recession in a decade, which led to 20 percent inflation, 28 percent devaluation, and 13.5 percent unemployment in 2018. Although the elections took place in an uneven playing field,52 with the ruling AKP and its ultranationalist allies controlling over 90 percent of the media, the opposition bloc comprised of a pro-secular, a center-right, and a pro-Kurdish party made significant gains, emblematic of the deepening of the aforementioned demographic and socio-cultural cleavages in Turkey.53
The ruling Islamist-ultranationalist alliance mobilized their voters by warning of an “existential threat” to the Turkish nation and branded the opposition candidates across the political spectrum as terrorists, vowing to remove them from office, prosecute them, and replace them with government-appointed trustees if they get elected. Although this strategy helped them secure over half the votes cast, it could not stop the opposition from winning eight of the twelve largest metropolises. The ruling alliance’s losses include the nation’s capital Ankara, economic powerhouse Istanbul, tourism hub Antalya, and two dynamic port cities on the Mediterranean, Mersin and Adana.
The opposition’s success in pushing the ruling bloc to the country’s economic backwaters will exacerbate Turkey’s polarization. Municipalities run by the main opposition CHP now govern almost two thirds of the GDP and half the population in the country. Resultingly, the ruling AKP’s local control of the economy fell from 75 percent to 30 percent. Turkey’s provinces now appear to be set on two radically different trajectories. Turkey’s economically and culturally dynamic urban centers, often located in the coastal areas, have turned to the opposition, while landlocked towns characterized by sluggish economies and outmigration stick to an ideology of religious nationalism advocated by the ruling alliance.
The Turkish government’s response to the election results is likely to aggravate Turkey’s governance deficit. Fearing the loss of his party’s access to municipal spoils, central to maintaining client networks and rewarding loyal followers, the Turkish president has indicated its plans to take over some of the municipal prerogatives, further centralizing a hyper-centralized polity. Since Turkey’s transition to an executive presidential system with the April 2017 referendum, Erdogan has amassed executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The Turkish president’s power grab at the municipal level would exacerbate Turkey’s acute governance deficit, impeding local dynamism and incentive taking.
The Future—Dystopian or Utopian?
Turkey appears to be at a crossroads. The country could continue to centralize political and economic power in the hands of an increasingly authoritarian and kleptocratic clique, relying on the coercive, surveillance, and social-engineering capacities of a digitally-enhanced party-cum-state apparatus to manufacture consent and eliminate dissidents. Such a dystopian path would ultimately lead not only to economic meltdown, capital flight, and brain drain, but also to social unrest, violent conflict, and refugee flows.
Meanwhile, the 2019 local elections have proven that there is still life in Turkish democracy and civic engagement. Despite the impoverishing effect of the ongoing brain drain, the country still has a critical mass of young, dynamic, and resourceful citizens, whose creative use of technology and civic know-how allow them to overcome obstacles of Turkey’s uneven political field.
It is difficult to predict whether Turkish political history will take a dystopian or a utopian turn at this juncture—or remain somewhere in between. What is certain is that the role Turkey’s allies choose and fail to play could be decisive, not only for the country’s future, but also for the future of the transatlantic alliance. Paying attention to the generational and digital divide in Turkey, and designing and implementing engagement policies that take these fault lines into consideration, would be a good place to start.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was a member of the Turkish Parliament from 2011 to 2015, during which time he sat on the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, EU Harmonization Committee, and the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on the IT Sector and the Internet. He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief and signatory to the Oslo Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief.