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A Peorian Makes Sense of Turkey

Growth trumps (nearly) all.

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By IKE BRANNON
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In the 1990s Turkey suffered through a decade of high inflation and economic malaise, and as a response Turks jettisoned the corrupt ruling party in favor of the Islamist party headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who many feared was more concerned with reducing the secularization of society than with growing the economy. But as prime minister, Erdogan delivered growth—plenty of it—and as a result millions of Turks joined the middle class. And not a few of the middle class became wealthy enough to spend a week or two at a pricey resort on the Aegean.

In a conversation shortly before his death, Gardner admitted his failure to anticipate the Turkish economic boom but pointed out that there is so little precedent for what Turkey accomplished that few could have conceived it would enjoy such a prosperous decade while the rest of Europe stagnated.

Our resort—one of a number of new hotels constructed in the last few years in the vicinity—would have made no sense even a decade ago, before Turkey’s economic renaissance. It employs a couple of hundred people: chefs, bartenders, lifeguards, servers, maids, and a raft of other positions.

My father-in-law is an ethnic Tatar, and we were quickly befriended by one of his fellow Tatars who worked at one of the beach bars. Having a friend at a bar where everything is free isn’t much of a boon, but he clued us in on a few things, one of which is that there is a labor shortage in Turkey’s resort industry. Wages
are steadily rising, and new resorts are going up every month, each nicer than the last. Entry-level servers are making almost $1,000 a month, which slightly exceeds the median household income for the country.

Our new friend did make sure we got seats for the entertainment highlight of our stay: a concert by a popular Turkish singer that took place a couple of days before Turkey’s first presidential election. Erdogan, bumping up against his party’s term limits for parliament, was stepping down as prime minister to run for the post, with the intent of making the position, heretofore ceremonial, a more muscular one.

At the conclusion of the concert the singer exhorted the crowd (I was virtually the only non-Turk there) to make sure to vote against Erdogan. Erdogan was as popular with the people at the resort as George W. Bush would be at a Weezer concert in Brooklyn. His record on human rights leaves something to be desired (Turkey has dozens of journalists in jail) and his push to give religious fundamentalists more power and influence has angered many in Turkey’s middle class. But I suspect many of our fellow vacationers went home and cast their lot with the man once again, for a basic reason: Strong economic growth excuses a whole host of flaws in a government.

Erdogan won’t be in power forever: At some point the Turkish economy will pause for one reason or another and voters will assign blame—rightly or wrongly—to the government and hand the reins over to someone else to fix it, along with all the other problems that would suddenly become more glaring in the absence of strong growth. But until that happens his government is safe.

A couple of nights after the concert, a traveling acrobatic troupe rolled into town, and after dinner we headed towards the amphitheater for the performance. In the middle of the show an emcee stepped up to the microphone during a pause to announce that Erdogan had won the election, which was met with little reaction—I suspect because all of us were too busy wrangling children to pay close attention to the announcements. But the other mitigating factor was that nearly everyone in attendance was a beneficiary of Turkey’s exceptional decade, and no one wants it to end. An Erdogan presidency gives hope that the prosperous times—and vacations by the beach—will continue.

During the second act my wife and I picked up our sleepy daughters and carried them back to our rooms, joining a steady stream of other families doing likewise, each of us feeling tired and content and slightly astounded at our good fortune.

Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and president of Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington.

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