By Jamal Kanj
It is high time for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to step aside if Turkey is to continue progressing democratically, and flourish economically. Great leaders know when and where to pass their torch.
Regardless of whether one believes Erdogan is an authoritarian or an egalitarian leader, it can’t be disputed that Turkey before him is not the same country after 13 years under his reign. While it is still to be seen, Erdogan’s legacy might equal or even surpass that of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk.
For more than 50 years, Turkish democracy was frequently interrupted by military coups. Even when not in direct control, the military played a central role in governing Turkey. Since the demise of Ataturk, the military has appointed itself as the custodian of the secular constitution changing governments at their whim. One of Erdogan’s major achievements – overlooked by his critics – is his success in removing the shadow of the military out of Turkey’s political process.
For hundreds of years, Turkey and Europe had enjoyed a love-hate relationship. Ever since the aging Ottoman Empire, successive Turkish leaders sought to integrate their country into the European continent. In recent history, the European Union (EU) has tantalised the allure of membership to succeeding Turkish governments, but never good enough to join.
Unlike other Turkish leaders, and without abandoning that goal, Erdogan didn’t place “all of his eggs” in the European basket. Under his leadership, Turkey had finally overcome its religious and cultural identity crises and turned eastward to expand its economic power and leadership.
In his first challenge as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Erdogan surprised more than 74 per cent of the electorate, who voted for other candidates. He approached his job as a pragmatic politician rather than a religious ideologue. He rolled his sleeves not just for ablution, but to deal with his city’s chronic problems. Despite his profound religious background, Erdogan realised something most religious parties fail to understand: The running of government requires much more than relying on supernatural power.
He tackled Istanbul’s water shortage, traffic chaos, air pollution, garbage and entrenched civil service corruption. He invested in building pipelines, bridges, trash recycling facilities and instituted financial accountability in managing municipal funds. He spent over $4 billion on improving the city’s infrastructure and paid off most of Istanbul’s municipality debt.
Climbing the ladder to national leadership in 2002, Turkey owed $23.5bn to the International Monetary Funds (IMF). After a little more than a decade under his leadership, Turkey was declared debt free by the IMF.
In the years under the Justice and Development party, Turkish public debt as a percentage of annual GDP was reduced by more than 40pc. In fact, Turkey today has a better ratio of public debt to GDP and lower budget deficit to GDP ratio than the vast majority of EU members.
In the last 13 years, minimum wage in Turkey has grown by almost 300pc with another 30pc increase planned for next January. The increase in minimum wage didn’t cripple Turkey’s competitiveness, but to the contrary it was credited in part for 64pc growth in real GDP and a 43pc increase in GDP per capita.
Unlike what typically takes place in the West during tough economic times, where governments resort to austerity measures by reducing public services, Erdogan’s government doubled the number of free universities and offered healthcare to all.
Debunking the perceived image of Islam, in 2003 the Turkish government joined with Unicef in a campaign called “Come on girls, let’s go to school.” The objective was to close the gender-gap in education between boys and girls.
Why should he step aside then?
Erdogan has a fatal human weakness. Much like Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia, he has a gargantuan ego. While that could be the driver behind his success, however, leaders must also realise that greatness of country overarches all egos.
The coming years will tell which is far more important for Erdogan; his eternal legacy or temporal greatness disposed to slide into dictatorship. History has plenty of examples.
* Mr Kanj (www.jamalkanj.com) writes regualr newspaper column and publishes on several websites on Arab world issues. He is the author of “Children of Catastrophe,” Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America. A version of this article was first published by the Gulf Daily News newspaper.