Anti-government protests in Turkey, which began innocently enough with a group of organizers hoping to preserve one of the last remaining parks in central Istanbul, have erupted into widespread rioting throughout the country, leaving 3 dead and about 5,000 injured according to a report from Reuters.
While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists this isn't the start of a "Turkish Spring", the ongoing conflict between protesters and the government demonstrates the inadequacy of economic performance as the ultimate measuring stick for political stability and development success. It's not just the economy, stupid.
Turkey has been cited as a success story in a region chalk full of turmoil and many economists and Western government officials hoped it could serve as a democratic model for other predominantly Muslim countries. Its 5 percent average annual growth rate from 2002-2012 has contributed to a growing middle class, a strong track record in innovation, and declining inequality. Indeed, just before the anti-government demonstrations revealed the social unrest bubbling beneath the surface, development economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote this piece praising Turkey's "enormous economic successes."
While Turkey's economic performance has been impressive, and undoubtedly played a big role in Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) political successes during the past decade, it has also emboldened hard-line Islamists in Turkey and diminished the celebrated secular nature of Turkish government. The international community, impressed by Turkey's growing economy and booming markets, turned a blind eye to this encroachment on individual liberties and secular institutions by Erdogan's government.
It is easy to boil the conflict between the government and protesters down to a clash between liberalism and authoritarianism, as Erdogan has sought to increase his power by adjusting the constitution to allow for greater executive power. This would be a convenient way to explain why so many Turks are upset with a government whose economic policies have helped the Turkish economy triple in size since 2003. What the protests actually reveal, however, are the limitations of economic prosperity as a predictor for political stability. If the Turkish government doesn't match successful economic policy with progressive social policy, political uncertainty will ensue. With political uncertainty, investors will lose confidence, and Turkey's economic engine will stall.
Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP aren't about to lose their standing as Turkey's most powerful political party, but they should recognize the importance of respecting Turkey's secular tradition if they hope to maintain the country's impressive economic gains of the past decade. Turkey is on the verge of becoming a major world power and a key driver of regional stability in the Middle East. It would be a shame if Erdogan throws his country's opportunity out the window for a chance at more personal power.