Turkey today imagines itself as a major contender in the global scene. It is the world’s seventeenth-largest economy and has used its geostrategic position and active diplomacy to assume membership in the UN Security Council for the first time in almost 50 years, to become a member of the G20 and to take on a visible role in international disputes. But it faces daunting obstacles at home and abroad, the two most important being the Kurdish problem and the state of civil-military relations. How the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) handles these two challenges will determine whether the current improvement in the Turkish political economy proves to be fleeting. Turkey is at an inflection moment. If it can resolve these problems it will find that many of the obstacles to European membership and continuing development will rapidly recede. Failure will mean a return to nationalist and autarchic policies as well as continual violence and instability.
The usual third alternative, muddling through, no longer appears to be an option. This has to do with the drivers of the current change. In addition to external forces such as the EU and globalization, two noteworthy factors are the AKP leadership and an emerging civil society which had, for far too long, been dormant and cowed by the state’s hegemonic power. The AKP, which advocates economic liberalism and engendered the current political opening, has two handicaps that militate against an orderly liberal progression. The first is its own tendency towards authoritarianism, as indicated by the domination of its own party politics by a single leader. The second is that its political instincts are not liberal in the classic sense, but rather imbued first and foremost by an apprehension for Muslim sensibilities and concerns. Thus while the AKP may be economically liberal, politically and culturally it has yet to transform itself. The burgeoning civil society, moreover, does not automatically translate into increased tolerance: Turkish culture still suffers from xenophobia and mistrust of both minorities and the outside world. This is attributable, in part, to the weakness of the institutions such as media and the education system.