Turkish Democracy’s Secret Weapon

OXFORD – The recent failed coup attempt in Turkey highlights the country’s continuing vulnerability to military takeover. But it also reveals a newly developed – and highly potent – asset, one that Turkey’s neighbors should also seek to cultivate: a strong middle class willing and able to mobilize against extremist threats. The question for Turkey now is whether President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will cultivate this asset. For the wider Middle East, the issue is how to build a middle class that can safeguard stability.

When throngs of citizens took to the streets of Istanbul in the middle of the night, in an effort to push back the military coup makers, it was a powerful show of collective action – one that should interest any political leader, particularly those seeking to develop their countries. Analysis of the coup has tended to focus on the rivalries within the Turkish elite, and on Erdoğan’s failings (which, to be sure, are plentiful). But little has been said about the structural shifts in Turkey’s political economy that have empowered the country’s middle classes, which form the electoral base of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Over the past two decades, Turkey has made remarkable economic strides, transforming itself from Europe’s sick man into one of its most vibrant economies and a new center of gravity for trade in the Middle East. Critical to this transformation have been infrastructure investment, support for medium-size firms, expansion of regional trade, and development of the tourism sector.

As a result of these efforts, Turkey’s per capita income has tripled in less than a decade, while its poverty rate has more than halved, according to World Bank estimates. This has underpinned tremendous economic mobility among Turkey’s rural labor force, small entrepreneurs, and lower-income workers, taking masses of people from the margins of society to the mainstream. Even foreign policy was, wherever possible, aligned with the economic interests of the rising middle class (though the Syrian intervention reflects a shift in foreign-policy priorities).