Erdoğan failed, so who is to blame?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will fail to reach every major goal he set for the 2023 centenary of the Republic of Turkey.

From economic growth to unemployment, wind farms to medical care, foreign trade to European Union membership; all of the targets are out of reach.

In 2011, to much fanfare, Erdoğan set out his vision for a Turkey in 2023. The country, having just voted in democratic changes to the constitution, was to become one of the ten largest economies in the world, he said. Each person would be earning an average $25,000 dollars and, as the economy flourished, unemployment would sink.

Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted party came to power in 2002 because people were demanding change – voters were disillusioned with the secular elite after a succession of weak coalition governments, corruption, economic crises and largely ineffective foreign policy.

By 2011, the former Istanbul mayor had transformed the country – Turkey was striding forward confidently, economic growth was matching China and the military had been banished from politics. Exports, meanwhile, were heading towards a record as firms marched into new markets in Africa and the Middle East. Everybody was talking Turkey.

More recent history is well-documented, so I will not go into much detail here. Gezi Park, a corruption scandal that embroiled the government in 2013, the monumental shift to one-man rule, the coup attempt of 2016 ...

Suffice to say, the outlook for the country is much darker. And Erdoğan’s vision of a booming, vibrant democracy “arriving” as a top world economy 100 years after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the republic is all but dead.

In 2023, Erdoğan said, the economy would be worth $2 trillion. It is now measured at $834 billion, the world’s 17th largest. GDP in Canada, the 10th biggest nation, is more than $1.5 trillion. Annual economic output in Turkey peaked at $950 billion in 2013 and, partly due to the lira’s depreciation, has not recovered.

Unemployment, now stubbornly in double figures, has never reached Erdoğan’s goal of 5 percent since he came to power. Youth unemployment is 21 percent. And, despite tweaks to economic data calculations last year, Turks were earning an average of $14,071 per annum.

turkey unemployment

Exports, which Erdoğan said would be $500 billion by the Oct. 29, 2023 celebrations, peaked at $158 billion in 2014. Since then, partly due to conflict on Turkey’s borders, they have declined and totalled $143 billion last year. Total foreign trade was $340 billion in 2016 versus a goal of $1 trillion. Trade with Germany and the United States, with whom Erdoğan is wrangling over the jailing of journalists and consular staff, has largely stagnated.

As for targets in the energy sector, three nuclear power plants remain unbuilt. Installed wind power is 6 gigawatts. Various state tenders for an additional 5 gigawatts have been delayed for more than two years, some for almost five. The goal of having 20 gigawatts up and running is “just not gonna happen”, one industry expert told me this week.

In health, despite the introduction of universal healthcare – one of Erdoğan’s greatest achievements -- Turkey has 175 physicians per 100,000 people, less than fellow Turkic republics Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, according to the CIA World Factbook. That is 20% fewer than his target of 210 per 100,000.

So the question is, who to blame? Despite the obvious failure, Erdoğan is still on message. Five months after the coup attempt, in his Dec. 31 New Year’s message, he stated somewhat darkly, but confidently that Turkey would not sway from its centenary targets:

“Terrorist organisations are just the faces and puppets in this struggle. We are in a struggle against the forces behind these organizations,” he said. “There is no mortal force that can divert this nation from its path.”

In 2014, Erdoğan coined the phrase “üst akil”, or “mastermind”, to describe alleged conspiracy against Turkey by unnamed “command and control centres”. The cunning plan, the theory goes, is to weaken and divide Turkey, through clandestine measures such as support for terrorist organisations or propaganda to weaken the currency or raise interest rates.

In May, returning to lead the governing party after changes to the constitution, with both eyes firmly fixed on 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdoğan told his ministers to outline six-month roadmaps to ensure economic goals would be achieved.

No such roadmaps have been published. On Oct. 10, Erdoğan said Turkey was pushing forward with plans to build a 43-km (27-mile) canal to circumvent the Bosporus through Istanbul, what he termed his “crazy project” when announcing it in 2011, to boost growth.

A week ago, Erdoğan’s chief economic adviser, Cemil Ertem, summed up the mood at the presidential palace. After the EU rejected calls to suspend membership talks at a summit in October, Ertem said “economic hitmen” including “global oligarchs” and foreign media were targeting Turkey, spreading lies to bring down the government and reverse economic prosperity.

Late last week, Kerem Alkin, an economist and board member of Turkey’s controversial state-run wealth fund, called on Turks to ignore “dirt” and “propaganda” in the media about alleged cuts in European investment bank funding to the economy, referring to a Bloomberg report that said the EBRD and other institutions were reviewing their investment plans. An Ahval source at German bank KfW confirmed the measures.

Looking forward, expect more of the same blustering scapegoating from the government as the centenary draws nearer. The achievements to celebrate it will remain elusive.