Yaşar Yakış
Jul 06 2018

Erdoğan says he got the message of the electorate

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his victory speech on the balcony of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) headquarters in Ankara that his party got the electorate’s message and will draw the appropriate lessons from its failures. Three areas seem to gain priority: the economy, the fight against terror and foreign policy.

A pro-government Turkish columnist, Nagehan Alçı, claimed that she learned from “reliable sources” that Erdoğan, who won Turkey's presidential elections in a first round on June 24, might appoint as minister of economy a Turkish citizen of Armenian origin, naturalised American, Daron Acemoğlu. He is teaching at present in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His publications include evocative titles such as ‘Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2006)’ and ‘Why Nations Fail (2012)’. He is one of the most cited economists in the world.

A similar step was taken in 2001 when then-prime minister Bülent Ecevit invited Kemal Derviş, the Vice-President of the World Bank, to become minister of economy. He came and his recipe of reforms brought Turkey’s economy back on track. Many analysts attribute the success of the AKP in its early years to the fact that it continued to implement Derviş’ recipe.

Back in 2011, Acemoglu was offered by then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to become Turkey’s permanent representative to the OECD in Paris. He politely declined the offer ‘in order to continue his academic career’. This time the offer would of course be more attractive but also challenging both for Turkey and Acemoglu because most of what Turkey has been doing recently is exactly what Acemoglu criticises in his publications. If Acemoglu accepts the apparent offer, he will have the opportunity to put into action his theories and enrich his experience by making adjustments if necessary. This would not harm his reputation. The challenge for Turkey would be to entrust the management of its economy to a person who maintains that the opposite of what Turkey is doing is right.

For instance, in his book ‘Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy’, Acemoglu says that the creation and consolidation of democratic societies depends on the strength of civil society, the structure of political institutions and the structure of the economy. This looks like a list of what the ruling AKP should have done but did not do.

Daron Acemoglu
MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu

Since the Ottoman times, Turkey used to regard civil society groups as movements trying to undermine the state. On the independence of institutions such as the central bank or other regulatory bodies, Erdoğan believes that the accountable authorities for a country’s economic failures are not appointed bureaucrats who manage these institutions but elected politicians who have to account to their electorate.

When Erdoğan shared these views in an interview with Bloomberg TV in London, investors in Turkey wondered whether they should not re-think their plans. Erdoğan had to send Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek back to London to explain to them that this was not what he meant.

It is unclear whether what Mrs. Alçı heard is a test balloon released by Erdoğan to feel the pulse of the public. He is a pragmatic leader and, if he is persuaded that Turkey’s economy could be saved by doing the opposite of what the AKP has been doing so far, he could make a U-turn and persuade his supporters that this is the right path to follow.

Acemoglu’s appointment to the management of the economy would have effects in other areas as well. During a live interview in 2014, Erdoğan complained that the opposition was carrying out a smear campaign against him by claiming that he was not of ethnic Turkish origin.

“They called me a Georgian. Forgive me for saying this, but they said even uglier things: they called me an Armenian!”. A concrete example of AKP’s getting the message of the Turkish electorate would be to appoint a renowned economist to the top of economy, irrespective of whether he is an Armenian or not.

Even if this rumour does not materialize because Acemoğlu declined the offer or for other reasons, leaking such an idea to the media is worth congratulating.