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Turkey is still normalizing
Looking at Turkey from abroad these days, one might be interested in various data points. The exchange rate, the interest rate and the various up-and-down ticks of the Borsa Istanbul index. One may also look at dotted lines in the Aegean and dotted lines on paper that are being negotiated or renegotiated. Those things are surely important, but I submit to you one data point that captures something far deeper than any of that: The fertility rate. Turkey recently announced its revised average rate of births per woman. As of 2019, the fertility rate dropped sharply from 2.069 babies per woman to 1.88. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind when I am telling my foreign friends to take a longer view on Turkey. Look at the grand normalization process that’s moving forward despite the daily news headlines. Focus on the essentials, do not get distracted by the noise.
Sixty years ago, Turkey’s fertility rate was about three times higher than that of Sweden. Yes, in 1960, the fertility rate was 2.17 in Sweden and 6.41 in Turkey. This meant that Turkey’s fertility rate was above the world average of five children per woman. At that time, only about 30 percent of Turks were living in urban areas.
As of last year, the Turkish fertility rate is very close to the Swedish rate of 1.76 and is lower than the world average today. The fertility rate in the EU-27 was 1.55 in 2018, which means that Turkey is not too far off from the bloc as a whole either. In the last sixty years, Turkey has turned into an industrial country and its urbanization rate is higher than 75 percent. Turkey’s economic transformation has meant that people chose to have fewer children, but wanted more opportunity for the ones they did have.
Note that this continuous decline in the fertility rate has not changed in the last 20 years. In 2002, when the AKP first came to power, Turkey’s fertility rate was already 2.4 and below the world average. That downward trend continued seamlessly in the last 18 years, despite frequent calls by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to have at least three kids (a mantra he repeats at every wedding he presides over). Turkey’s population is still changing with internal and recently international migration. When families move from Şanlıurfa, a province where the fertility rate is still 3.89, to Istanbul, their average birth rates decline drastically.
This is the context in which Turkey decided to stay within the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, a human rights treaty that is meant to stop violence against women and domestic violence. The treaty was signed in Istanbul because the AKP government in 2011 was still a progressive force and took the lead in writing it. For the past months and weeks, however, many powerful voices in Islamist circles came out against the treaty, presenting themselves as defenders of the family and vanquishers of LGBT rights. They led a very loud and vicious campaign against the treaty, and it looked for a while as if they were successful in convincing the president to leave the treaty that bears the name of his city.
It now looks like they failed. The underlying reason for their failure is that headscarf-wearing or not, women across the political spectrum still unite against domestic violence to defend the Istanbul Convention. President Erdoğan openly rejected Islamist calls for Turkey leaving the convention this last week, reversing his favorable statements for the Islamist call only weeks earlier. Why? He probably did the math and understood that he had more to lose than he had to gain from such a move. Half his base, and many others outside of it, were watching him very carefully.
With rising concerns about another currency crisis in Turkey, the government’s already tight room to enact structural change on society is going to decline. Turkey’s economic problems are entirely “national,” as foreign investors, perplexed by the highly unorthodox measures Turkey has taken along the way, have already left the country. Mismanaging the pandemic has not helped, and we are bound to see a continuation of the Turkish economy’s downward spiral. Concerns about unemployment and growth, together with the loss of hard currency earning capacity in tourism are rising again.
The Turkish demographic convergence with Europe continues despite political calls for larger families. When it comes to what’s happening on the ground, economic reality continues to cut across the political soundtrack. Conservatives who want larger families are in a tough spot. They could either manage the economy well, which would mean that people naturally don’t want as many children, or they could manage it badly, and people won’t be able to afford as many children. Either way, Turkey converges with Europe on some of the most basic social indicators.