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Studies 11 August, 2011

Internal Reform in Turkey


Muammar Khouli

Muammar Faisal Saleem Khouli is a Jordanian who was born in Kuwait in 1975, and gained his Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from Baghdad University in 1999. He then went on to a Master’s degree in International Studies from Mustansaria University in Baghdad, which he completed in 2003, and gained a PhD in Political Science from the Arab Studies and Research Institute of Cairo in 2008. After that, he became a lecturer at the 7th of October University in Libya from 2008 to 2009. His published works include “American Policy with Regards to the Palestinian Right of Return”, Palestinian Studies Center, Baghdad University, Volume 12, December 2010.

Public opinion was a factor in determining the outcome of the November 2002 legislative elections in Turkey, which removed the old political class and replaced it with the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The AKP, it was hoped, would be able to lead Turkey out of its domestic impasse, and a reform process began. Arab scholarship on Turkish issues has been divided into two camps since the rise of the AKP:

The first group focuses on Turkey's global role, paying attention to its ties with the United States or to other bilateral relationships, such as Turkey's connections to the
Islamic Republic of Iran or the Zionist Entity, and how these impact the collective security of the Arabs. The second group focuses its studies on questions of Turkey's political and diplomatic roles and questions of values, economics, security and defense and how these are reflected in Turkish Middle East policy.

With regard to internal reforms surrounding the constitution, politics, economics and social questions, these have played a role in the advancement of Turkish society, but have received little attention from Arab researchers. This research report, on the other hand, will seek to address questions previously neglected by Arab scholarship. The aim is to provide evidence for the thesis that internal political reform is not impossible, provided that there is the requisite political will for it. So how and why exactly do factors such as public opinion impact on the question of political reform? 

The leadership of former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who led a coalition government from May 1999 until November 2002, was subject to a number of political and economic crises, none of which were made any better by his deteriorating health. Taken together, these came close to driving Turkey over the precipice. The crisis accelerated during the last couple of years of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer's term in office, which began in 2000).

Sezer's closing years were marked by severe dilemmas and conflicts with the rest of the country's secular establishment, one example being his refusal to accept certain appointments after recommendations made by the Higher Education Council. Another example was his refusal to accept a cabinet decision to dismiss hundreds of civil servants who stood accused of being members of Islamist or separatist groups, a stand he based on principle despite his deep commitment to secularism. This was part of a growing constitutional crisis between the legislative and executive branches of government.

While the president was in favor of a number of reforms which would bring Turkey closer to the European Union, such as ending the death penalty and allowing the Kurdish language to be broadcast, the broad coalition controlling the legislature, led by Devlet Bahceli's Nationalist Movement Party, was opposed to these changes: they feared that any leniency with Abdullah Ocalan, head of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), would cost them a lot of electoral support. This pressure eventually led the party to withdraw from the ruling coalition, precipitating a governmental collapse.

In addition to the foregoing impasses, Turkey's democratic apparatus and institutions were no longer serving their purposes: Parliament had become hostage to the composition of the coalition, proving the inability of the government to solve society's problems. Even coordinating efforts between the different wings of the coalition proved illusive.

The schism between the executive and the legislature also made itself felt in the economy, including the president's refusing a governmental order to privatize three banks. Sezer followed this refusal with a February 2001 executive order authorizing the state's ombudsman to investigate corruption in the banking sector.

During the regular monthly meeting of the National Security Council, the president openly criticized the way in which the prime minister was administering public affairs, accusing him of covering up widespread corruption in the country. Storming out of the meeting, Ecevit told journalists waiting for him outside that "[the president] over-stepped the boundaries of decency and respect, and I will not speak to him again until I receive an apology from him."

There were immediate consequences for the Turkish economy. First came the collapse of the money markets, Turkish financial markets being extremely sensitive to political upheavals such as the constant shake-ups of governments during the 1990s; these constant upheavals seemed to undermine the country's efforts to overcome its long-term economic problems.

In this instance the consequences included a rapid surge in interest rates to 76% and a run on the Turkish Lira which led to a drop in its value, driving the Turkish Central Bank to pump $5 billion into the markets in a matter of hours to in an effort to relieve the pressure. The Istanbul bourse lost 14% of its value in a single day. On the day following the spat between the president and prime minister, the average Turkish citizen had lost one-third of his or her spending power. This is when the economic situation became even more complicated.

Over the previous decade, a number of government-owned banks had been offering loans to businesspeople on the basis of political affiliation, as opposed to creditworthiness, solvency or the credibility of a business plan. Legislators and other politicians often intervened to secure loans - sometimes without any collateral - for certain individuals as part of efforts to secure political gains.

These same politicians would later intervene to legally protect those who could not make their repayments, even going so far as to ask the Central Bank to show compassion to delinquent debtors and their banks, on the grounds that this was "[consistent with] government policy". With no other choice, the Central Bank turned to the government of Turkey, which proffered a simple solution: print more bank notes. This drove up levels of inflation throughout the 1990s, with low-income Turks being the most hard-hit.

The Turkish state then took out a $16 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, a loan which, of course, came with the caveat of IMF supervision[1]. Turkey abided by the rules set down by the IMF, which entailed serious economic reforms in the country. Yet the IMF plan produced its own disastrous results, which overlapped with the political disturbances described above. In short, the economic scene was characterized by the following:

  1. Uncertainty for both public and private banks.
  2. An increase in the government deficit and the size of foreign debt
  3. The attrition of the country's foreign currency reserves
  4. Government unpreparedness for the foregoing, which led to the closing of thousands of small businesses[2]. This contributed to a decrease in investment, as well as a rise in unemployment[3].

Together with these economic and political upheavals, the prime minister became gravely ill on May 17, 2002. He remained in an Ankara hospital for 10 days, during which time the internal contradictions of the coalition were exacerbated. He barely had a chance to leave hospital before he had to return for a further week. It soon emerged in press reports that these repeated visits to hospital were not a result of an emergency medical condition, but rather of an illness associated with senility. Soon, there was a movement demanding that the 78-year-old Ecevit step down and that the country hold new parliamentary elections in order to avoid making a bad economic situation worse[4].

Turkey's political and economic settings, which were spiraling out of control, had a definite and undeniable impact on the fate of the country[5], driving the other coalition partners to finally call for new elections in a special session of Parliament in September 2002. The polls were scheduled for November[6]. The weight of these crises became so grave that a number of Western observers came to the conclusion that Turkey was at a crossroads, and that it conceivably faced the prospect of disintegration[7].


  • [1] Hassan, Yasser Ahmad in Turkey: The Search for the Future, (in Arabic), Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing, Cairo, 2006, pp. 164-165
  • [2] Ozturk, Ibrahim, "Turkish Economic Shifts from 2002 to 2008" (in Arabic), in Turkey: Domestic Challenges and Foreign Stakes, Mohammed Abdelatti (ed), Al Arabia Publishing House, Beirut, 2010, p. 48
  • [3] Shoubaki, Omar, "Turkish Islamism: From Prosperity to Justice and Development", in The Return of Islamic Ottomanism, (in Arabic), Turki Dakheel (ed), Al Misbar Publishing, and Aljazeera Center for Studies, 2011, p. 93
  • [4] Hasan, Yasser Ahmed, op. cit., pp 166-167
  • [5] Sulieman, Mohammed, "The Experience of the Turkish Justice and Development Party, Part II: Excellence and Creativity",(in Arabic), http://www.alsar.ws/index.cfm?method= home.com&contetID=5443
  • [6] Hasan, Yasser Ahmed, op. cit., pp 178-183
  • [7] Shoubaki, Omar, op. cit., p. 93