In June 2011, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a decisive victory, giving the conservative party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül, a third term. Since its accession to power in 2002, the AKP has sparked alarm among diehard secularists who assert that the party seeks to erode the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Some even contend that the AKP seeks to impose Sharia (strict Islamic day-to-day religious law) on the country, pointing to its efforts to remove restrictions on headscarf wearing and Erdoğan’s vocal opposition to alcohol and tobacco use, though party leadership denies this.
Under the AKP, Turkey has moved toward greater political and economic engagement with the Arab world, as well as with developing countries in other regions, though the government says it remains committed to joining the EU. Most member states are in favor of Turkey’s accession, but there are some strong opponents, and the talks have made only halting progress as Turkey faces criticism on several issues. Continued Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus (which only Turkey recognizes as a sovereign nation) is one major stumbling block; another is the Turkish government’s refusal to label the deaths of several hundred thousand Armenians during World War I as genocide. Domestically, critics cite criminal laws that punish anyone found guilty of insulting “Turkishness” (amended in 2008 to insulting the Turkish nation) and pressures on the media as further obstructions.
Simmering tensions between the AKP and its critics boiled over in the summer of 2013, when the heavy-handed police response to a peaceful sit-in at a central Istanbul park sparked weeks of antigovernment protests in Istanbul, Ankara, and elsewhere around the country. The two sets of elections scheduled for 2014—local elections in March and a first-ever popular vote for the country’s president in August—will be watched carefully to see if the opposition from various segments of society can be turned into a real challenge to the AKP at the ballot box.
The AKP’s greatest bargaining chip in recent elections has been the upsurge of the Turkish economy since the aftermath of the 1999 Marmara earthquake, but this trend has shown signs of faltering in recent months. The country still enjoys a diverse economy: self-sufficient agricultural production, a massive textile industry, and a growing electronics sector, not to mention impressive tourism figures, with the number of foreign visitors nearly tripling between 2000 and 2010. International faith in the economy has driven considerable foreign investment, which has strengthened the Turkish lira. Inflation, which for 30 years led to the counting of the lira in millions, dropped low enough to allow the government to lop six zeroes from the old lira in 2005. But while Turkish annual GDP growth averaged more than 6% throughout most of the 2000s and hit 8.9% in 2010, it slowed sharply to 2.2% in 2012. Meanwhile inflation began to rise again in 2011, nearing 9% in summer 2013, and the lira’s value against the dollar weakened to an all-time low. These trends, combined with Turkey’s greatest economic liability—a sizable trade deficit, driven largely by the country’s need to import foreign oil—and concerns about an overheating economy, have caused some renewed jitters among foreign investors.
In Istanbul they sell a T-shirt with the name of the city spelled using a crescent, a cross, and a Star of David. Turks pride themselves on their tolerance of other religions, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which governed people of all faiths. Turkey is a secular republic, however the population is overwhelmingly (99%) comprised of Muslims; the remaining 1% are Christians (mostly Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic) and Jews. One reason for the relative harmony between people of different faiths may be the more relaxed approach toward religion found in much of Turkey. Many Turks drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, and on any given day in Istanbul you’re as liable to find as many scantily clad fashionistas walking down the street as women wearing headscarves (many of whom are plenty stylish themselves).
Turkey has made many recent contributions to the art world—no surprise from a country that boasts such stunning antiquity. The Istanbul Film Festival will be in its 33rd year as of 2014: held every April, the festival awards prizes for both Turkish and international films. The country’s most well-known creative mind may still be novelist Orhan Pamuk, who garnered Turkey’s first Nobel Prize in 2006 for his dreamy yet historical novels, though the stars of other authors—as well as filmmakers, designers, and musicians—are on the rise as well. Additionally, Turkey’s status as a large textile exporter has helped ensure the nation a place in fashion design, and Istanbul’s Nişantaşı district is a maze of small boutiques selling imported and Turkish clothing. In the visual arts, Turkey is most famous for its ceramics and porcelain, especially handmade Kütahya and İznik tiles.
Turkey is a diehard soccer nation (they call it football), and heated rivalries run strong. Turkey’s clubs boast lots of homegrown talent along with some players imported from Europe and South America. The Turkish national football team has enjoyed sporadic success in international play. In the last decade, the team reached the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup and 2008 European Cup. Basketball is also an increasingly popular sport in Turkey, which hosted the 2010 FIBA World Championship—and cheered its national team of “12 giant men” to a second-place finish.
Turkish media seems to always be on people’s lips, mainly because of Article 301 and the Turkish government’s penchant for closing down, fining, or otherwise applying pressure on outlets that offend its sensibilities or offer criticism that is deemed too harsh. Until 2008, Article 301 forbade anyone from insulting “Turkishness,” under pain of criminal prosecution (the crime has now been changed to insulting the Turkish nation). Most cases are dropped but many notable Turks, including Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted. Frequent shutdowns of popular Internet sites, most prominently YouTube, have raised concerns about freedom of speech, as have recent detentions of journalists and the 2007 murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. Despite these controversies, the Turkish press remains large and vibrant, with a variety of voices represented.
In an effort to curb rampant tobacco addiction, the Turkish government introduced a ban on smoking in enclosed public places, which took effect in May 2008. Some bars and clubs simply ignore the ban, but the government estimates that Turks are smoking 10 to 15 percent fewer cigarettes each year, and that more than 2 million people have kicked the habit since the ban went into effect.