Location: Turkey

The Economic Track Record of Pious Populists – Evidence from Turkey

FREE Network Policy Brief | A Case Study of Economic Development in Turkey under AKP

In this policy brief, I summarize recent research on the economic track record of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. The central finding is that Turkey under AKP grew no faster in terms of GDP per capita when compared with a counterpart constructed using the Synthetic Control Method (SCM). Expanding the outcome set to health and education reveals large positive differences in both infant and maternal mortality as well as university enrollment, consistent with stated AKP policies to improve access to health and education sectors for the relatively poorer segments of the population. Yet, even though these improvements benefited women to a large extent, there are no commensurate gains in female labor force participation, and female unemployment has increased under AKP’s watch. Of further concern is the degree to which the SCM method applied to institutional measures fail to find any meaningful early improvements along this dimension, and more often than not reveals adverse institutional trajectories.

The Turkish political economy represents something of a puzzle. After a traumatic financial crisis in 2001, a series of political and economic reforms brought higher economic growth and a promise of EU membership. An authoritarian political elite, spearheaded by a military with a troubled past of controversial coups ousting democratically-elected governments, looked set to give way to a new cadre of political and economic elites who, despite a recent past as radical Islamists, seemed to favor free markets as well as democratic reform.

News media, as well as several international organizations, heaped praise on the Turkish government. In some cases, these represented optimistic interpretations of events, whereas in some cases they inadvertently served to spread a misleading picture of the strength of the Turkish economy. A recent World Bank report described Turkey’s economic success as “a source of inspiration for a number of developing countries, particularly, but not only, in the Muslim world” (World Bank, 2014).

Today, the state of Turkey’s political economy is represented very differently. Several international rankings of political institutions (Meyersson, 2016b) and human rights show Turkey spiraling ever lower, following years of stifling freedom of speech, recurring political witch hunts, and escalating internal violence. Lower GDP growth rates, falling debt ratings and exchange rates are evidence less of a rising new economic giant than a stagnating middle income country under increasingly illiberal rule. A recent IMF staff report (IMF, 2016) noted how Turkey remains “vulnerable to external shocks” and a labor market “marred by rapidly increasing labor costs, stagnant productivity, and a low employment rate, especially among women.”

What has been the AKP’s track record on economic growth in Turkey? While some has described it as an economic success (as noted above), others have pointed out that Turkey’s economic development has not been much more than middling (Rodrik, 2015).

Evaluating the economic track record of the AKP faces numerous challenges. The rise to power of the AKP government came in the wake of one of the worst financial crises in modern history and following a number of substantial economic and political reforms. Finding a candidate for the counterfactual, a Turkey without AKP rule, is challenging and looking solely at time series of Turkish development omits significant trends that likely shape its trajectory.

The focus of my new paper (Meyersson, 2016a) is thus to examine the economic and institutional effects of the AKP in a comparative case study framework. Using the Synthetic Control Method (SCM), developed by Abadie et al. (2010, 2015), I estimate the impact of the AKP on Turkey’s GDP per capita by comparing it to a weighted average of control units, similar in pre-intervention period observables. The construction of such a “synthetic control” avoids the difficulty of selecting a single (or a few) comparable country, and instead allows for a data-driven approach to find the best candidate as a combination of many other countries. This avoids ambiguity about how comparison units should be chosen, especially when done on the basis of subjective measures of affinity between treated and untreated units. The method further complements more qualitative research with a research design that specifically incorporates pre-treatment dynamics, which due to the financial crisis preceding the election of AKP to power, is essential. Similar to a difference-in-differences strategy, SCM compares differences in treated and untreated units before and after the event of interest. But in contrast to such a strategy design, SCM allocates different weights to different untreated units based on a set of covariates.

Figure 1. Results for Turkey’s GDP per capita

fig1Note: Upper graph shows Turkey’s GDP per capita compared to a synthetic counterpart. The middle graph shows the difference between the former and the latter (black line) as well as placebo differences for untreated units (gray lines). The lowest graph plots the weights assigned to countries that constitute the synthetic control for Turkey. See Meyersson (2016a) for details.

As shown in Figure 1, I find that GDP per capita under the AKP in Turkey has not grown faster than its synthetic control. A “synthetic Turkey” (upper graph in Figure 1), which went through similar pre-2003 dynamics in its GDP per capita, also experienced an economic rebound very similar to that of Turkey.

This is robust to a range of specifications that in different ways account for the pre-AKP GDP dynamics. Restricting the set of control units to Muslim countries only, reveals Turkey to have actually grown significantly slower than the weighted combination of the Muslim counterparts. Moreover, a comparison of severe financial crises using SCM shows Turkey’s post-crisis trajectory in GDP per capita to be no faster than its synthetic control. The focus on post-crisis recoveries allows estimation of the composite effect, including both the financial crisis of 2001 as well as the election of AKP and, under the assumption that post-crisis – and pre-AKP – reforms were indeed growth enhancing, provides an upper bound for the effect of the AKP.

These results, however, hide some of the more transformative aspects of how the Turkish economy has changed during the AKP’s reign. Focusing on education outcomes, I instead find large positive effects on university enrollment for both men and women. These improvements are mirrored for key health variables such as maternal and infant mortality, and are likely responses to large-scale policy changes implemented by the AKP that are discussed in Meyersson (2016a). The policy changes include the extensive Health Transformation Program (HTP) implemented by the AKP government (Atun et al 2013), as well as mushrooming of provincial universities from 2006 and onward (Çelik and Gür, 2013).

As such, to the extent that the AKP has engaged in populism from a macroeconomic perspective, it has nonetheless also experienced a significant degree of social mobility, especially among the poorer segments of society. An exaggerated focus on economic output risks obfuscating the structural changes in key factor endowments that could very well prove beneficial in the long run. Still, the improved access to these areas has not been followed by improved outcomes in the labor markets, especially for women. The period under AKP has seen significant reductions in both female labor force participation as well as higher female unemployment. This raises concerns over to what extent the Turkish government has been able to put a valuable talent reserve to productive use, as well as allowing women meaningful labor market returns to education.

Figure 2. Results for Turkey’s gross enrollment in tertiary education

fig2Note: Upper graph shows Turkey’s gross enrollment in tertiary education compared to a synthetic counterpart. The middle graph shows the difference between the former and the latter (black line) as well as placebo differences for untreated units (gray lines). The lowest graph plots the weights assigned to countries that constitute the synthetic control for Turkey. See Meyersson (2016a) for details.

An evaluation of the AKP’s institutional effect using multiple institutional indicators, measuring various aspects ranging from institutionalized authority, liberal democracy, and human rights results in a failure to find any durable early positive effects during AKP’s tenure. In the longer run, for all outcomes the overall effect seems to have been clearly negative. Finally, the significant reduction in military rents, whether measured in terms of expenditure or personnel, is illustrative of the degree to which the military’s political power diminished relatively early on, and posits concerns over lower economic rents as another source of friction between the civil and military loci of power in the country.

Overall, the results point to Turkey undergoing a transformative period during the AKP, socioeconomically as well as politically. Even though the initial years of higher GDP per capita growth under the AKP, in absolute terms, dwindle significantly in comparison to a synthetic counterpart, increased access to health and education provide reasons for political support of a government that has extended a socioeconomic franchise to a larger segment.


  • Abadie, Alberto, Alexis Diamond, and Jens Hainmueller, “Synthetic Control Methods for Comparative Case Studies: Estimating the Effects of California’s Tobacco Control Program,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 105 (2010), 493-505.
  • Abadie, Alberto, Alexis Diamond, and Jens Hainmueller, “Comparative Politics and the Synthetic Control Method,” American Journal of Political Science, 2015, 59 (2), 495-510.
  • Atun, Rifat, Sabahattin Aydin, Sarbani Chakraborty, Safir Sümer, Meltem Aran, Ipek Gürol, Serpil Nazlıoğlu, Şenay Özğülcü, Ülger Aydoğan, Banu Ayar, Uğur Dilmen, Recep Akdağ, “Universal health coverage in Turkey: enhancement of equity,” The Lancet, Vol 382 July 6, 2013.
  • Çelik, Zafer and Bekir Gür, “Turkey’s Education Policy During the AKP Party Era (2002-2013),” Insight Turkey, Vol. 15, No. 4, 2013, pp. 151-176
  • International Monetary Fund, “Staff Report for the 2016 Article IV Consultation: Turkey,” IMF Country Report No. 16/104
  • Meyersson, Erik, 2016a, “’Pious Populists at the Gate’ – A Case Study of Economic Development in Turkey under AKP”, working paper.
  • Meyersson, Erik, 2016b, “On the Timing of Turkey’s Authoritarian Turn”, Free Policy Brief, http://freepolicybriefs.org/2016/04/04/timing-turkeys-authoritarian-turn/
  • Rodrik, Dani, 2015, “Turkish Economic Myths”, http://rodrik.typepad.com/dani_rodriks_weblog/2015/04/turkish-economic-myths.html
  • “The World Bank, Turkey’s Transitions: Integration, Inclusion, Institutions.” Country Economic Memorandum (2014, December).

On the Timing of Turkey’s Authoritarian Turn

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This policy brief examines the timing of Turkey’s authoritarian turn using raw data measuring freedoms from the Freedom House (FH). It shows that Turkey’s authoritarian turn under the ruling AKP is not a recent phenomenon. Instead, the country’s institutional erosion – especially in terms of freedoms of expression and political pluralism – in fact began much earlier, and the losses in the earlier periods so far tend to dwarf those occurring later.


A growing field in economics emphasizes the importance of the media in shaping economic outcomes. Whereas the role of the media in informing voters is well established (Strömberg, 2015), recent research also points to the link between the rise of illiberal democracies (Mukand and Rodrik, 2016) and authoritarian control over media (Guriev and Treisman, 2015).

In few countries is the link between authoritarianism and restrictions on freedom of expression as pervasive as in Turkey. The Turkish government under the Erdoğan-led Justice and Development Party AKP has gutted the judiciary of most of its independence, and set it loose to crack down on critical media. These dire circumstances, however, contrast markedly with descriptions of Turkey from of a few years ago. Quite recently many analysts still deemed Turkey a “vibrant democracy”, and as late as in 2013 the foreign minister of Sweden proclaimed: “Erdoğan’s Turkey is on the right path.” This media shift raises concerns over the public portrayal of Turkey’s institutional development up until the last few years as well as the extent to which analysts may have misinterpreted Turkey’s institutional development over the past decade.

Measures of Freedoms

To this date, the most prominent source of measuring freedoms in the world is the Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the World reports (Freedom House, 2015), which designates countries into one of three statuses: Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, in ascending order in freedoms. In constructing these statuses, FH uses subscores for 7 subcategories, aggregated into 2 categories — Political Rights (hereby PR), with a range of 0 to 40 increasing in freedoms, and Civil Liberties (hereby CL), with a range 0 to 60 increasing in freedoms – for which each then gets its own 1-7 (with a low value indicating more freedoms and vice versa), and in turn these are used to classify a country as having a particular Freedom status. From the FH’s methodology section:

A country or territory is awarded 0 to 4 points for each of 10 political rights indicators and 15 civil liberties indicators, which take the form of questions; a score of 0 represents the smallest degree of freedom and 4 the greatest degree of freedom. The political rights questions are grouped into three subcategories: Electoral Process (3 questions), Political Pluralism and Participation (4), and Functioning of Government (3). The civil liberties questions are grouped into four subcategories: Freedom of Expression and Belief (4 questions), Associational and Organizational Rights (3), Rule of Law (4), and Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights (4).

The PR category thus focuses more on rights pertaining to politics, and is used also to construct an indicator variable for whether a country constitutes an electoral democracy or not. CL, as the name indicates, is more focused on liberties, including the right to freedom of expression, including media freedoms.

Somewhat curiously, Turkey’s ratings have barely budged over the last decade, and have been consistently classified as a Partly Free country. In 2005, FH assigned Turkey a 3 in both PR and CL, and the only change since then was a one-point drop in 2012’s CL rating down to 4.

The PR and CL, as well as their subcategory, scores are available on FH’s website. Using these, the graphs below plot the evolution of the PR and CL total scores for Turkey between 2005-2015 (which is the period for which FH provides this data), as well as the 25th, 50th, and 75th global percentiles from the annual world distribution of the respective scores. The latter allows gauging not just the absolute performance of Turkey but also that relative to the rest of the world.

Figure 1. Freedom House Category Scores

fig1Note: The red lines in the upper (lower) graph indicate the Political Rights (Civil Liberties) score. The dashed gray lines indicate the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles.

Turkey’s PR score (upper graph) is relatively flat over the decade with a 4-point drop after 2013, while the CL score (lower graph) has been falling since 2010 and was stagnant in the period before. Whereas Turkey started the period with a CL score just below the median country, it ended closer to the 25th percentile. None of the years show any indication of expanding freedoms during AKP’s rule.

The disaggregation of these scores into subcategories sheds further light on which of the latter have driven the former. For Turkey, especially relevant subcategories are the political pluralism and freedom of expression. The former refers to the degree to which people can organize in political groupings, credible opportunities for a political opposition, freedom from outside interference, and political rights for ethnic minorities. (This has clear links with the political barriers to entry such as the ten-percent threshold, the banning of political parties, and the persecution of Kurdish political activists in Turkey.) The latter subcategory refers to freedoms related to media, culture, religion, and academics, as well as the degree of freedom from government surveillance. Turkey’s subscores are plotted below, grouped by PR and CL:

Figure 2. Freedom House Subcategory Scores


In Figure 2, there is rather striking fall in both the political pluralism (red in upper graph) and freedom of expression (blue in lower graph).  The other subscores tend to be more stagnant over time, and the only subcategory that exhibited any significant positive momentum during the period is Electoral Process, although by 2015 it had reverted to its 2005 value. The falls in political pluralism and freedom of expression are large in magnitude, from 12 to 9 in the former, and 12 to 8 in the latter. Taking the latter decrease at face value would imply that Turkish citizens in 2015 have two-thirds of the freedoms of expression that they enjoyed in 2005. Moreover, the clear majority of the falls in both these variables occured before 2013 – the post-2013 fall in freedom of expression accounts for only one fourth of the total fall observed since 2007.

Given the degree to which civil liberties have eroded faster than that of political rights in Turkey, this begs the question how its inherent degree of illiberalism has evolved relative to other democracies. For this purpose, I plot the Freedom of Expression subcategory (a part of the CL score) against the PR score for the 2015. This latter score is used by FH to classify countries into whether they can be called ‘electoral democracies’ or not (CL subcategories have no bearing on this classification):

“An ‘electoral democracy’ designation requires a score of 7 or better in subcategory A (Electoral Process) and an overall Political Rights score of 20 or better.”

FH thus classifies Turkey as an electoral democracy – its Electoral Process is consistently above 7 (see upper graph in Figure 2) and PR score above 20 (see Figure 1). But are there many FH-classified electoral democracies with similar levels of freedom of expression? Figure 3 answers this question:
Figure 3. Freedom House Subcategory Scores

fig3Note: Green = Autocracy, blue = Democracy, Red = Turkey. The dashed green/blue lines indicate the median values for autocracies/democracies.

In 2015, Turkey is much closer to the median autocracy than the median democracy in terms of freedom of expression. Numerous autocracies have higher levels of freedom of expression than Turkey, and only two other electoral democracies have lower values of this variable: Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Consequently, Turkey today is a clear outlier due to its freedom of expression deficit among the countries classified as electoral democracies by FH. Yet the slide in Turkeys’ freedoms did not start in the last couple of years but has remained a pervasive feature of its institutional trajectory during the last decade.

Much of Turkey’s erosion of freedoms would not be as visible using only the most aggregate seven-point scaled ratings, as these obfuscate important changes within the rating scores. A shift in analysts’ focus to more disaggregated data may thus be useful in order to detect warning signs in a more timely fashion.

Finally, the severe deficit in freedoms in countries nonetheless classified by Freedom House as electoral democracies raises the issue of whether there should be a lower freedom bound to inclusion into the group of democracies in the world. And if so, what should determine such a lower bound?


  • Freedom House, 2016, “Freedom of the World 2016.”
  • Guriev, Sergei, and Daniel Treisman, 2015, “How Modern Dictators Survive: An Informational Theory of the New Authoritarianism”, NBER Working Paper No 21136.
  • Meyersson, Erik, and Dani Rodrik, “Erdogan’s Coup”, Foreign Affairs, May 26th, 2014,
  • Mukand, Sharun, and Dani Rodrik, 2016, “The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy”,working paper.
  • Rodrik, Dani, 2014, “A General’s Coup”, mimeo.
  • Strömberg, David, 2015, “Media and Politics”, Annual Review of Economics, 7: 173-205.

What Expansion of Mandatory Schooling Can and Cannot Do in Conservative Muslim Societies

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New research shows expanding mandatory schooling in conservative Muslim societies have broad positive effects on female empowerment but is not enough to overcome the significant barriers to female entry in the labor force.

Does expansion of public education empower women? A large literature documents the positive effects of education on women’s economic and social outcomes in developed countries, but we know less about its causal effects on women’s empowerment in Muslim societies where women’s participation in the labor market is limited and they often do not have control over their earnings or their own bodies (Doepke et al 2012). In fact, even though female education has been successfully expanding in many majority-Muslim countries, the number of legal rights enjoyed by women is few relative to men, and female labor-force participation remains low (UNDP 2005). The lack of a corresponding labor-force participation effect raises concerns over the efficacy of expanding education as a means of improving women’s rights in Muslim societies. On the other hand, education has been shown to have many important non-pecuniary effects outside the labor market, such as in health, marriage, and parenting style (Oreopolous and Salvanes 2011) and to the extent that these effects help empower women, they may constitute alternative mechanisms through which education may lead to women’s empowerment (even in the absence of large labor market returns). However, most of this research comes from countries and societies that are not majority-Muslim and where women do work to a larger degree. As such, disentangling non-pecuniary returns to education from its labor market (and thus pecuniary) returns is particularly challenging in most settings and whether education may empower women in the Muslim world remains an open question.

Even though scholars debate the fundamental causes for the severe degrees of gender inequality in Muslim societies, most posit a nexus of patriarchal culture, strong religious values, and restricting social norms as proximate explanatory factors. Historically, Lewis (1961) claims women’s status was “probably the most profound single difference” between Muslim and Christian civilizations. In more contemporary cross-country studies, Fish (2002) documents a negative cross-country correlation between having an “Islamic religious tradition” and female empowerment, while Barro and McCleary (2006) also show that Muslim countries tend to exhibit higher degrees of religious participation and beliefs. Comparing the effects of a business training program on female entrepreneurship among Hindu and Muslim women in India, Field et al (2010) find evidence in line with significantly stricter constraints to female labor-force participation among Muslim women. To the extent that barriers to entry due to religious values restrain women’s rights, an integral outcome of empowerment is therefore a woman’s ability to independently assert her own beliefs.

In a recent paper, Selim Gulesci and I exploit an extension of compulsory schooling in Turkey to estimate the causal effect of schooling on female empowerment (Gulesci and Meyersson 2014). Compulsory schooling laws have been extensively used to estimate returns to education in Western countries on labor market outcomes (Angrist and Krueger, 1991, Oreopoulos 2006), health and fertility (McCrary and Royer 2011, Lleras-Muney 2005, Black et al 2008) among others. We follow a similar strategy to provide meaningful causal parameters for the effect of a year of schooling on outcomes related to social status of women in Turkey, a majority-Muslim country.

In 1997, Turkey’s parliament passed a new law to increase compulsory schooling from 5 to 8 years. By this law, individuals born on or after September 1986 were bound to complete 8 years of schooling, whereas those born earlier could drop out after 5 years. Using the sample of ever-married women from the 2008 Turkish Demographic Health Survey (TDHS) we are able to observe outcomes 10 years after the law change was implemented.

We adopt a regression discontinuity (RD) design assigning treatment based on whether an individual’s month-and-year of birth was before or after the September 1986 threshold. As such, our identification strategy entails comparing cohorts born one month apart and relies on the assumption that these two groups should exhibit no systematic differences other than being subject to different compulsory schooling laws. We can thus calculate an RD treatment effect, illustrative of the causal effect of education for individuals born around the threshold.

Analysis of the sample of ever-married women focuses the RD treatment effects on a subset of the population that tends to be demonstratively poorer and more socially conservative, i.e. the very subpopulation that the reform was aimed at. In a comparison of ever- and never-married women, the reform only affected education among the former, and as a result, the exclusion of non-married women effectively means exclusion of non-compliers with the reform. This is a likely consequence of ex post single women being more likely to have attended school longer regardless of expanding reforms. We also show that the probability of selection into the married sample is not affected by the law.

Our results are as follow. First, we show the effect of the reform on women’s years of schooling. As a result of the reform, women’s average years of schooling increased by one year, and completion rates for junior-high (secondary) and high school completion increased by 24 and 8 percentage points (ppt) respectively. There is no significant impact of the reform on men’s schooling on average (mainly because the average man’s schooling in Turkey around the age threshold was already at a relatively high level). Thus, the reform effectively served to reduce the education gender gap by half.

Second, our RD estimates reveal that this additional year of schooling had significant secularizing effects. Ten years after the reform was implemented, and relative to sample means, women were 10 percent (8 ppt) less likely to wear a headscarf, 22 percent (10 ppt) less likely to have attended a Qur’anic study center and 18 percent (7 ppt) less likely to pray regularly.

Third, we find no evidence of schooling on the timing of either marriage or birth, nor on the number of children. We do however find significant effects on women’s decision rights with regards to both marriage and fertility decisions; a reform-induced year of schooling results in a 10 ppt (20 percent relative to the sample mean) increase in the likelihood of having a say in the marriage decision, and a 10 ppt (12 percent) increase in the likelihood of having a say in the type of contraceptive method adopted. We further find a reducing effect of schooling on the likelihood that a bride price was received by the women’s parents from their husband’s family upon their wedding.

Fourth, we document less pronounced and largely imprecise impacts on women’s labor market outcomes. Although our estimates indicate positive effects on non-agricultural employment in general, and self-employment in particular, these estimates are sensitive to the specification used. At the same time, we show significant positive effects of schooling on household wealth, largely driven by appliances related to women’s role as housewives. We are unable to explain this by observable increases in spousal quality, measured as husband’s years of schooling.

Altogether, our results indicate significant empowering effects of education, but whereas we document precise effects on decision rights, household wealth, and measures of social and religious conservatism, we fail to find equally concise effects on spousal and labor force outcomes. This prevents an interpretation relying exclusively on either labor market or assortative matching in the marriage market as the main channel of empowerment. In fact, an examination of heterogeneous effects reveal diverging effects depending on how socially conservative women’s backgrounds are; in rural areas, education pre-dominantly allows increased freedom to be more secular, greater decision rights over marriage, and less traditional marriages. In urban areas, education has similar effects, but also leads to increased labor force participation. We interpret this as increased education, and its associated bargaining power in the household, leading to different allocations depending on the preexisting level of women’s rights. Education may thus have only a partial effect on employment, as religious or cultural barriers to entry prevent women from realizing larger gains of education through the labor market.

Our paper adds to the research literature by providing meaningful causal parameters for the effect of a year of schooling on both social and religious outcomes for women in a majority-Muslim country. The findings point to a set of returns to schooling that take into context the socially conservative nature of the Turkish society where policies to increase schooling ultimately seem to improve women’s status (as captured by higher decision-making power and household wealth) but are unable to meaningfully break down the barriers that women face in entering the labor market, particularly in more conservative rural communities. While still having important empowerment consequences for women’s empowerment in Muslim societies, education may not be a magic bullet toward full emancipation. Policies hoping to achieve female empowerment will thus require complementary reforms in health and the labor market to address barriers to entry more directly.


  • Denisova, I., and S.Commander, S.Commander and I. Denisova (2012), ‘Are skills a constraint on firms? New evidence from Russia’, EBRD and CEFIR/NES, mimeo
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  • Volchkova, N., Output and Export Diversification: evidence from Russia, CEFIR Working Paper, 2011
  • Angrist, Joshua D. and Alan. B. Krueger, 1991, “Does Compulsory Schooling Attendance Affect Schooling and Earnings?” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 106(1): 979-1014.
  • Barro, Robert and Rachel McCleary, 2006, “Religion and Economy”, Journal of Economic Per- spectives, 20(2): 49-74.
  • Black, Sandra, Paul Devereux, and Kjell G. Salvanes, 2008, “Staying in the Classroom and out of the Maternity Ward? The Effect of Compulsory Schooling Laws on Teenage Births”. Economic Journal, 118(530): 1025-54.
  • Doepke, Matthias, and Michelle Tertilt, 2009, “Women’s Liberation: What’s in it for Men?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124: 1541-91.
  • Field, Erika, Seema Jayachandran and Rohini Pande, 2010, “Do Traditional Institutions Constrain Female Entrepreneurial Investment? A Field Experiment on Business Training in India”, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 100: 125-29.
  • Gulesci, Selim, and Erik Meyersson, 2014, “For the Love of the Republic – Education, Secularism, and Empowerment”, working paper.
  • Lewis, Bernard, 1961, “The Emergence of Modern Turkey”, Oxford University Press: London.
  • McCrary, Justin, 2008, “Manipulation of the Running Variable in the Regression Discontinuity
  • Design: A Density Test,” Journal of Econometrics, 142(2): 698-714.
  • Lleras-Muney, Adriana, 2005, “The Relationship between Education and Adult Mortality in the United States,” Review of Economic Studies, 21(1): 189-221.
  • Oreopolous, Phillip, 2006, “Estimating Average and Local Average Treatment Effects of Education when Compulsory Schooling Laws Really Matter ”, American Economic Review, 96(1): 152-175.
  • Oreopolous, Philip and K. G. Salvanes, 2011, “Priceless: The Nonpecuniary Benefits of Schooling”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(1): 159-184.
  • UNDP, 2005, “Arab Human Development Report 2005 – Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World”.

Political Islam and Women’s Rights – Evidence from Turkey

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In this policy brief, I discuss how state-of-the-art econometric techniques can be used to shed light on the causal effects of Islamic rule on women’s rights. A central empirical challenge is that the identity of a politician is endogenous to voter characteristics, which in the case of Islamic political participation is particularly important due to the prevalence of banning such parties in many Muslim countries. Using a research design called Regression Discontinuity, I show that despite a negative association between Islamic rule and female participation in education in Turkey, the causal effect of an Islamic party on women’s rights is positive. In the case of Turkey, this represents the Islamic political movement’s advantage over secular alternatives in overcoming barriers to female participation in voluntary education institutions among the poor and pious.

Whither Legal Turkey?

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With the ascent to power of the AKP and its political victory against the secular elite and as the country is about to draft its first civilian constitution, the party’s leadership faces a daunting challenge to transform the country into a real democracy for minorities as well as majorities. The legacy of the party’s leadership will not be determined by its win against a system rigged against them, but how they transform an authoritarian and arbitrary legal system into extended rights for, amongst others, the country’s ethnic Kurds, women, and political rivals. This requires more than a new constitution and will be the real test of whether Turkey can serve as a model for the region or not.

A Sick Man No More

Turkey was once referred to as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, plagued by financial turmoil, erratic growth, and territorial contraction. Today, it is among the twenty largest countries in the world both economically as well as population-wise, and remains one of few Muslim democracies. While Europe has been undergoing a financial crisis, Turkey has been growing at an unprecedented rate, leading the Economist to label it as ‘The China of Europe’.

Among the Arab countries, Turkey is also increasingly seen as a viable model of combining Islam and democracy, and many have lauded the government for its assertion of civilian control over state institutions. A recent triumphant tour of Egypt and Libya by Turkey’s Prime Minister blurred the distinction between official state visit and celebrity tour.

Yet Turkey’s leaders need all the political capital they can acquire, as steep challenges remain domestically. Whether Turkey can be a model for the rest of the Muslim world will be determined by whether its leadership can solve the remaining political and social injustices. Currently, these are exasperated by an outdated and authoritarian legal system and arbitrary enforcement of existing laws.

From White to Black

During the last two decades, Turkey has experienced something very rare. Historically, power emanated primarily from the country’s security establishment – the judiciary and the military – educated in the country’s elite schools and trained in a Kemalist creed where religious and non-Turkish identities had no place in the public sphere (that is, unless they were secular and Turkish). In the media, this group is often referred to as the ‘White Turks’.

The constitution set up in 1982, following a military coup two years earlier, put security and stability ahead of individual rights and cemented institutions with limited accountability to the public. The need to preserve the state’s security interests allowed for heavily regulated political participation among those deemed threatening to the state, be it Islamists, leftists, or those seeking increased Kurdish autonomy.

Weak coalition governments changed with the season, the debate captured by leaders powerful enough to hinder political rivals from affecting real policy while powerless or unwilling to do so themselves. Human rights abuses, especially in Eastern Turkey provided ample fuel for critics of Turkey’s prospects for EU membership.

Today, the ‘White Turks’ are nearly gone − a democratically elected majority government, made up largely of pious Muslims from the periphery of Turkey, is in power. The President, Abdullah Gül, is from Kayseri, the birthplace of the ‘Anatolian tigers’, a group of successful and piously Muslim entrepreneurs. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, stems from (what was) one of the poorer neighborhoods in Istanbul, and spent time in jail for reciting what the judiciary deemed to be an inflammatory poem. Both men have wives wearing the headscarf, which for the secular elite is what a red rag is to a bull.

After a decade-long conflict between the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the secular elite, the former seems to have come out on top. Earlier this year the top brass of Turkey’s military corps resigned en masse following unprecedented arrests of senior military officers related to allegations of plotting a military coup. A constitutional amendment passed last year now allows military personnel, including those involved in the 1980 coup, to be tried in civilian courts and has revamped the appointment procedure of parts of the judiciary. A significant portion of all Turkish officers is currently in jail for conspiring against the AKP government.

With power consolidated behind them, the AKP leadership has their work cut out. While the Turkish model is already being lauded as a role model for the Arab spring countries, within the country significant challenges and injustices remain. Deep institutional reform is required to accommodate a people more than deserving of an open and free society. Full political and economic rights need to be further extended to women, religious minorities, as well as the country’s large Kurdish population. The justice system, especially the Turkish Penal Code needs to be altered to rid it of remnants of the authoritarian system that the AKP government claims to be dismantling. A new constitution is needed in which the state serves the people and not the other way around. Finally, Turkey needs more than new laws; it needs enforcement of, and compliance with, the rule of law in what would be an institutional change not seen since the birth of the republic.

In the name of terrorism…

In a recent survey of anti-terror convictions by the Associated Press in more than 100 countries, Turkey accounted for a third of all convictions. The Turkish state has long been at odds with a large Kurdish minority seeking greater autonomy and has been engaged in a war with the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party (PKK) since the late 1980s.

The political system is currently rigged against Kurdish political representation, largely because of an extreme rule requiring any party to win at least 10 percent of the national vote to receive any parliamentary seats at all. Kurdish candidates not banned before elections regularly are afterwards and many end up in jail.

Despite the AKP’s attempt at a Kurdish Opening, and the sizeable Kurdish representation within the party, results have come up below expectations and large-scale protests remain commonplace in the region. Due to the Turkish Penal Code allowing anti-terror laws to govern the legal cases of protesters, this creates a source of regular condemnation from human rights organizations.

For example, not only can protesters sympathetic to Kurdish rights be prosecuted for spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization (Article 7/2, Anti-Terror Law), but also many are deemed to be “committing crimes on behalf of the PKK without being a member of that organization” (Article 220/6, Turkish Penal Codes). Consequently, demonstrators for Kurdish rights can be prosecuted as if they were actually fighting the government as armed members of the PKK (Article 314/2, TPC). When added to charges from the Law on Demonstrations and Public Assemblies, this could mean sentences of up to thirty years in jail. Child protesters usually receive much shorter sentences, often between four to five years.

Laws like these have profound effects on press freedom. According to a report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Turkey has the dubious honor of being the world leader in imprisoned journalists. The report estimated somewhere between 700 and 1,000 ongoing proceedings that could lead to imprisonment of journalists. The length of sentences are occasionally astronomical; Vedat Kurşun and Emine Demir of the Azadiya Welat newspaper were sentenced to 166 and 138 years respectively in prison, while Bayram Namaz and Ibrahim Çiçek of the Atilim newspaper each face up to 3,000 years in prison. Some journalists, such as Halit Güdenoğlu of Halit Yürüyüş magazine, currently face 150 court cases.

At the same time, after 10 years of failing to reach convictions of leading members of the notorious Turkish Hizbullah, an Islamist militant group (unrelated to its Lebanese namesake), several of its leading members were released from custody earlier this year. The organization is thought to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people during the mid-1990s during the worst years of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state. Evidence suggesting covert state backing for the group’s fight and tactics against the PKK has not led to any serious consequences. The suspects were released in compliance with a new law restricting the amount of time suspects can be held while waiting for the final verdict in their cases to 10 years.

As if this was not ironic enough, the ten years of detainment without trial is now being used against the secular elite; officers, academics, journalists, former police chiefs, public prosecutors, and theologians alike. In two of the most controversial legal cases in Turkish history, around 500 individuals have been detained. Prosecutors in the Ergenekon investigation accuse detainees with membership of what is described as a clandestine terrorist organization seeking to destabilize the country’s Islamist-leaning government. In the Sledgehammer investigation, high-ranking members of the military stand accused of plotting a coup in 2003. Explained by the government as instrumental to the dismantling of the so-called “deep state”, the cases are increasingly criticized for the flawed, if not fabricated, evidence put forward by the prosecutors.

As noted by many observers, the detainees seem to have nothing in common except their opposition to the AKP government, as well as a social movement referred to as the Gülen movement. The actions of the prosecution approached that of a farce when earlier this year police raided the prospective publisher of a book about the the Gülen movement, written by detained journalist Ahmed Sik, and proceeded to delete every digital copy of the manuscript. The 12th Court for Serious Crimes described the draft as an “illegal organizational document” and ruled anyone refusing to hand in a possessed copy would be accused of “aiding a criminal organization.” Weeks later, seven theologians were arrested, and computers and documents were confiscated. The sole similarity between the theologians seems to have been their questioning of Gülen’s credentials as a theologian.

The independence of the judiciary is also under pressure. In 2007, a regional public prosecutor, Ilhan Cihaner, had started investigating links between Islamist organizations and the fixing of state contracts. After refusing to drop his investigations in late 2009 after pressure from the government, Cihaner was removed from his position and on February 17 2010 he was arrested and charged with membership of Ergenekon.

The Elephant in the Room: Women’s rights

Several of Turkey’s laws are also simply not enforced. Examples of this are laws regulating women’s rights. Despite a “Law 4320 on the Protection of the Family”, women’s de facto situation remains highly vulnerable – “enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors neglect their duties, often due to lack of expertise or will to deal with cases of violence against women and girls”.

A recent survey by Hacettepe University reported that around 42 percent of all women older than 15 in Turkey—approximately eleven million women in total—have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a husband or partner at some point in their lives.

Women who want to report abuse are turned away, and in some cases have been murdered despite having obtained protection orders. The law requires women’s shelters in every settlement above 50,000 inhabitants yet more than a hundred are still missing.

In the 2010 Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum, Turkey scored a rank of 126 out of 134 countries surveyed, behind its neighbors Iran, Syria, and Egypt. There are two main components that drove this abysmal performance in gender equality. The first is labor force participation; according to World Bank female labor force participation was a meager 24 percent in 2009 (on par with Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt and below the rate found in Iran).

The second component is upper secondary education (high school), since this is where the combination of voluntary participation and the headscarf ban keeps many conservative families from sending their daughters to school. Almost a hundred years after Ataturk imposed a reform making primary education mandatory for women, gender inequality in education and labor remains one of the more serious impediments to Turkey’s future economic development.

The ban on the headscarf, especially in universities, a remnant of an increasingly archaic ideology, stands out as the unequivocal symbol of gender inequality. However, improving women’s rights and economic opportunities is about more than the headscarf – for example, making upper secondary education mandatory would be another less politically charged road ahead. But in order to further women’s participation in public institutions such as the labor force, education, and politics, political leaders need a pragmatic approach in outmaneuvering a deeper resistance to female emancipation.

Turkey needs more than a new constitution…

One of the AKP’s campaign promises of the recent June elections was the drafting of a new constitution. The political capital gained by the AKP in its fight with the military as well as its role as a model in the Muslim world, provides a unique opportunity to, for the first time, set up a civilian constitution that does away with many of the autocratic elements of the 1982 constitution.

A formal document with principals such as asserting the primacy of individual rights over the state is much needed. But without deeper reforms that seep into the justice system and the security establishment, this will simply become another superficial reform without real implications.

As long as the Turkish Penal Code and the anti-terror laws can be used in an arbitrary manner to pursue political opponents; be it Islamists, secular elites, or Kurds; constitutional reform will fail to bring about real change. Until real independence from political pressure is granted to judges and journalists alike, Turkey will not know freedom of expression. And without real change in female participation in markets and institutions, Turkey will not know gender equality. An age-old saying in Turkish goes “Happy is he who can call himself a Turk.” If only it was that easy.

Further Reading