Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand
June 9, 2011
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to win a third term in Sunday's election. His hunger for power may be bad for Turkey's democracy, but he has helped transform the country into an economic powerhouse. The once-promised EU membership seems increasingly irrelevant for the rising power.
He walks up to the podium, looking serious, and waits patiently until the applause subsides. "Üstat! Üstat!" ("Teacher! Teacher!") they call out, while clapping and whistling.
Then he begins to speak. In conversations, his voice has become quieter and quieter the longer he has been in power. Conversely, it sounds more powerful than ever when he speaks in public. He greets his audience, calling them "kardesler" ("siblings"), a word that implies a much stronger sense of familiar affection in Turkish than in English or German. Then he gets serious. He has a plan to announce, one that his campaign strategists have already characterized as an "insane project," an idea that exceeds all "powers of imagination."
These are not his words but the embellishments of his speechwriters. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is responsible for the core of the matter. On this day in Istanbul, he unveils a project that he hopes will secure him a place in the history books.
"Dreams are seeds that sprout in reality," he says. "We have rolled up our sleeves for this city, whose nights are filled with the scent of hyacinths. We are giving it a new canal." Erdogan wants to dig a new canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, a second Bosporus, which is to be opened in 2023, on the 100th birthday of the Turkish Republic.
Hoping for a Big Majority
Erdogan's words make it clear that he is a master politician with long years of experience. He no longer searches for issues that are likely to please voters and be tolerated by the military. When he gives a speech today, every word has an impact. And when he says provocative things -- such as calling the opposition leader a semi-infidel, accusing generals of treason or telling the Israeli president: "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill" -- these are no longer gaffes. In fact, he knows exactly what he is doing.
Erdogan, who grew up in the Istanbul district of Kasimpasa on the Golden Horn, back when it was still a cesspool, has now been in power longer than US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and most of the other world leaders he encounters at G-20 summits. He has won two elections with triumphant majorities, and he is more than likely to win a third term in Sunday's elections. The only question is how big his margin of victory will be.
If it's only enough to secure half of the seats in the parliament, he will have to make compromises regarding the new constitution he hopes to introduce. But if his margin of victory is big enough to secure three-fifths of seats, he will be able to write this constitution himself, although it would still have to be submitted to the people for a referendum.
And if he wins a two-thirds majority, which is not impossible, he probably won't even have to do that. And if that happens, Erdogan will be what his opponents and supporters alike already call him today: the Sultan, the Padishah of Turkey.
Erdogan has achieved a lot. He has taken the fight out of Turkey's powerful military brass, demoralized the secular elites and straightened out the cotton kings and concrete tycoons who once amicably divided up the country with the generals. He has built up Turkey, traditionally a country of coups and crises, into a regional power. He is taken seriously as an important player in London and Washington, just as he is in Riyadh and Beijing. And even Israel -- with whom he has picked fights, much to the delight of Arabs -- follows his every step with great attention. Erdogan has provided the Turks, even those who can't stand him, with a self-confidence they lacked before.
The Ottoman Empire was once known as the "Sick Man on the Bosporus," but today's Turkey looks very healthy indeed. After eight years of Erdogan, it is much richer and more modern than the poor country that applied to join what was then known as the European Community more than 20 years ago. Its economy is growing three times as fast as those of other European countries. Driving from the western part of Turkey into the eastern provinces of Bulgaria and Romania, one wonders which side of the border the affluent part of Europe is actually on.
At the same time, Turkey has become more bigoted. The Islamists in the government harass their opponents with at least as much implacability as they were once harassed. They bully artists and celebrities who do not share their worldview, they gag media companies whose newspapers are critical of the administration, and they have journalists tossed into prison on absurd charges.
It is time for Europe to rethink how it actually wants to treat this powerful and difficult neighbor: to take it seriously and align itself with Turkey, stall it for another 20 years or tell it that it has nothing in common with Europe and its predominantly Christian and Western orientation. It is time to take stock of the situation, because the parameters of one of the most torturous and protracted European debates have changed fundamentally in recent years.
'The Government Gave Us Nothing'
In Gaziantep, a fast-growing industrial city about 1,150 kilometers southeast of Istanbul, gray factory buildings stretch endlessly along the highway, as columns of buses and trucks rumble across the asphalt. This is the right place to witness what is behind Turkey's rise to 17th place among the largest economies in the world. Today Gaziantep, once known for not much more than its eggplant kebabs and pistachio trees, is one of the "Anatolian tigers," as the dynamic economic centers of the Turkish hinterlands are known. The city's industrial production has doubled since 2005, and in 2008 it exported goods worth $3.9 billion (€2.67 billion).
Cahit Nakiboglu, 63, a stout man with a moustache and glasses, played a key role in shaping the economic miracle in Gaziantep. He is the head of Naksan Holding, the third-largest maker of plastic bags in Europe. His customers have included Germany's Plus supermarket chain, the Pierre Cardin fashion house and furniture giant Ikea. "The government gave us nothing," says Nakiboglu. "For decades, all it did was put obstacles in our way."
That changed in 2002, when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power. A severe financial crisis had driven the country to the brink of ruin in 2001. Kemal Dervis, a Turkish executive at the World Bank who was recently mentioned as a possible successor to International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, introduced a massive debt-restructuring program. The AKP government reaped the fruits of his labor. Turkey's average economic growth had increased to 6 percent by 2007, and hardly any other country recovered as successfully from the 2008 and 2009 global financial crisis.
Unless his spiritual predecessors, who had dreamed of an "Islamic economic order," Erdogan did not see capitalism and Islam as contradictions. Guided by the interests of the rising Muslim middle class, the AKP's most important group of voters, the new prime minister set out to open up the country's economy.
The China of Europe
Turkey achieved a growth rate of 9 percent last year. Unemployment has fallen to 11 percent, inflation is now down to 6 percent, and the most recent figures showed total public debt at 41 percent of gross domestic product -- a figure that most European Union countries can be envious of. Per capita income has tripled since Erdogan came into office. The British magazine The Economist has dubbed the country "the China of Europe."
As the example of Gaziantep shows, the large cities in western Turkey are no longer the only ones benefiting from the boom. Anyone who visited cities like Denizli, Kayseri, Trabzon and Samsun 10 years ago would hardly recognize them today. City highways, skyscrapers and new port facilities are being built, and the Turkish state railway plans to inaugurate a new high-speed line between Eskisehir and Konya at the end of the year.
The only concern on the eve of Erdogan's third election victory is that the economy is becoming overheated, that the Turks are buying and producing too much, and that imports are so high that they even exceed the country's growing exports. "Despite the imbalances," writes the Wall Street Journal , the strength of the Turkish boom is sustainable: "The growth story can continue."
Flocking to Istancool
The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, ranks Istanbul at the top of its list of the 30 most dynamic cities in the world. No one knows whether there are 15 million or perhaps already 17 million people living in the megacity on the Bosporus. New skyscrapers, each one more avant-garde than the next, are constantly going up in Istanbul's business districts, while the satellite towns on the outskirts are continually growing as more people migrate to the city. Most of these new arrivals are able to find work.
Gone are the days when the only people flocking to the Bosporus were tea pickers from the Black Sea and refugees from the troubled Kurdish regions. Europeans and Americans have also discovered "Istancool," the most modern city in the Islamic world, a city that never sleeps. Among the new arrivals are people whose parents and grandparents once emigrated to faraway Germany in search of a better life. Germans of Turkish descent, derided in Turkey as "Almancilar" (literally "Germanyers"), are discovering that the city is much more dynamic than anything they could find in Germany.
One of these children of guest workers is Nese Stegemann, 43, a doctor specializing in orthopedics and surgery, who is married to a German and characterizes herself as "about as German as it gets." When she flew to Istanbul with her family two years ago, Stegemann was overwhelmed by the wealth of cultural contrasts, the galleries, exhibitions, designer outlets, mosques and bazaars. She was offered a job in a private hospital. She accepted, and today she earns more than she did at home in Hanover.
Stegemann is just one of thousands. The number of Turkish-Germans returning to the country of their forefathers has long outnumbered the number of Turks heading to Germany. In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, they totaled 40,000. Many of them are highly qualified and extremely well adjusted to the globalized world, in which being rooted in two cultures is seen as a career bonus.