ISTANBUL – Turkey’s economy has been booming for a decade, earning praise not only from financial markets, but also from development economists like Jeffrey Sachs. Why, then, have peaceful demonstrations that began in Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square turned into a nationwide protest movement, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government?
Sachs, and others, have rightly acknowledged and praised the Erdoğan government for its economic policies, which have led to a higher growth rate. But the question is whether a developing country like Turkey can sustain rapid economic growth if the same government is undermining basic liberties and impeding the advance of key institutions needed for long-term success.
The Erdoğan government’s brutal response to the protests highlights this dilemma. Initially, fewer than 200 peaceful demonstrators gathered in an effort to protect Taksim Square – the last green space left in central Istanbul – against the construction of yet another shopping mall. As the government cracked down, with Erdoğan adopting an uncompromising position in defiant speeches, the protests grew – and continue to grow, despite (or perhaps because of) the use of excessive police force. Unofficial figures indicate that more than 1,000 people have been injured so far, and more than 1,000 have been arrested.
True, Turkey’s annual GDP growth has averaged 5% over the last decade of rule by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). But this should not lead anyone to conclude that Turkey is a development success story. If we have learned anything from the extensive research on growth and development that now exists, the key to sustainable progress lies in a country’s institutional design.