For years, Turkey’s economy has defied pessimistic predictions and avoided the crisis that many economists said was coming. Yet the recent news that Turkey’s economy shrunk in the third quarter of this year for the first time in seven years has led to renewed speculation about whether the country’s luck has finally run out. As a result, many observers are again asking what the social and political consequences of an economic downturn would be, with a few even speculating that a failing economy might be the one force left that could break President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grip on power.
It is notoriously difficult to predict how societies will respond to changing economic circumstances, but there is ample reason to think that economic setbacks would only accelerate Turkey’s social polarization and descent into authoritarianism.
The greatest risk would be that economic stress would intensify the already dangerous polarization within Turkish society.
When the AKP first came to power, Turkey’s economic success played an important role in driving support for the party. Particularly coming on the heels of Turkey’s 2000-2001 crisis, the AKP’s successful stewardship of the economy, which facilitated improved public services and dramatic infrastructure development, helped it expand its constituency beyond the realm of religiously motivated voters. A reputation for technocratic competence (the party’s logo, after all, was a light bulb) became a crucial part of its appeal in Turkey and abroad.
In time, the AKP’s economic policies have garnered increased criticism, and the party’s role in undermining Turkey’s stability and rule of law has become ever more apparent. However the party’s record of past economic success, combined with its ability to shape the political narrative through its control of the media, has created a situation where even the most drastic economic crisis might only intensify support for the party among its constituents.
Erdoğan has proved remarkably successful so far in convincing the Turkish public that the political, military, and economic challenges the country faces are not the result of government policy but instead stem from the malicious, generally conspiratorial, influence of sinister outside forces working to sabotage Turkey’s rise. For the part of the Turkish public already loyal to Erdoğan, economic trouble could easily serve to confirm this paranoid narrative, much as the July 15 coup attempt did. As a result, in the face of increased economic turmoil, they could well be more inclined to rally around Erdoğan and the AKP, seeing them as the sole force capable of protecting not only Turkey but also the economic gains they achieved in the past 15 years.
Likewise, for those who oppose Erdoğan, economic difficulties would also serve to confirm their pre-existing views, that Erdoğan’s irresponsible, autocratic rule was threatening Turkey’s future. In this regard, the greatest risk would be that economic stress would intensify the already dangerous polarization within Turkish society, increasing stress along existing fault-lines and, with it, the risk of violence.
Even those within Turkey’s business community who have benefitted from the past decade of crony capitalism under the AKP would not necessarily be in a position to abandon the AKP, or even necessarily exert a pragmatic influence on its economic policies. Instead, with less legitimate profits to go around, they could become even more dependent on the government to help secure profits through corruption and outright seizure. This creates the potential for a vicious cycle, in which an unhealthy economy leads key members of the AKP business constituency to rely on continuing or expanding those practices that further undermine the health of the economy as a whole.
In short, it seems far more likely that an economic crisis would exacerbate Turkey’s political pathologies rather than solve them, leaving the country more divided, angry, and isolated. For all those hoping to see Turkey eventually emerge as a stable democracy, further news of Turkey’s economic troubles should be a cause for concern.