February 11, 2013 2:34 am

The alluring but misleading Turkish model

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The country and its Arab neighbours are at different stages

Arab Islamists often point to Turkey’s economic achievements under the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party (AK party) as a model, saying they could create socially conservative but dynamic and prosperous societies.

But comparing Turkey to Arab countries in transition could be misleading, as is attributing all the factors that drove Turkey’s success to the AK party or its Islamist roots.

Turkey and its Arab neighbours are at different stages in terms of developing their infrastructure, banking systems, state structures and politics.

Turkey’s tripling of gross domestic product in dollar terms over the past decade was driven by the AK party building on policies from previous governments, which cut the role of the state and encouraged trade, fostering a culture of competition and entrepreneurship.

“Turkey’s economic success has not been created by the AK party, they were drivers but the major reforms were done before,” says Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “The AK party benefited from the accumulation of these reforms and it was wise enough not to tinker with the programme that was put into place. When the programme started to deliver they got the political and economic benefit.”

More importantly, the AK party’s pro-business policies bolstered a new generation of entrepreneurs, often from Anatolia, who are close to its conservative views and provide the party with a key support.

Significantly, the party used the Islamists’ grass roots experience to deliver social policies that targeted the poor and provided more affordable healthcare and housing. “The genius of the AK party leadership has been to combine social conservatism with pro-market liberal economic policies,” says Mr Ulgen. “It was the first time in Turkish political history such a merger occurred and the lesson from the AK party to all the parties now at the helm of Arab countries is exactly this: you can have social conservatism combined with market policies.”

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