The city of Istanbul, famed for its strategic and geographic significance as the crossroad between Europe and Asia, is almost a metaphor for the precarious position the country now finds itself in.  The outcome of the citizen-led protests will determine whether it will continue in its development as a modern European democracy or remain the country of its past, dominated by a single strongman.

A recent and first visit to the city of Istanbul coincided with the beginning of riots inflamed by a brutal and unprovoked government response to a small and peaceful protest against plans to turn the Gezi Park on Taksim Square, one of the cities few green spaces, into a shopping complex.  Since then, the protests have continued and escalated, widening in cause and spreading to other Turkish cities.  The global media coverage has put Turkey and its Government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s most successful politician since Ataturk, under intense scrutiny and has already led to the freezing of negotiations regarding its entry into the European Union.

There is a lot at stake for a country seeking not only entry to the European Union (EU), but also the right to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Istanbul.

From a first time tourist point of view, Istanbul is a wondrous metropolis spread along each side of the Bospherus and Golden Horn, teeming with energy and vibrancy - not to mention tens of thousands of other tourists. 

While not the official capital, Istanbul is the epicentre of the nation’s history, culture, finance and business.  With a growing population of around 13.5 million people, it is the largest city in Europe and the third largest city proper in the world.  Remarkably it is also one of the world’s safest cities.  It has much to recommend it.

Demographically speaking, Turkey is a young country with 43 percent of its 80 million population under the age of 25 and 14.1 percent over 55, compared to 31 percent of Australia’s 23 million under 25 and 26.2 percent over 55.  The median age is 29.2 compared to Australia’s 38.1.

Turkey has had one of the fastest growing and most diverse economies in Europe, comprised of services, agriculture, manufacturing - including the production of motor vehicles for just about every company you could think of - shipbuilding, construction and electronics.  Its strategic geographical position links the oil and gas rich nations bordering the Caspian Sea to western Europe and the Middle East via the world’s second longest pipeline.  Reforms undertaken in the 80s largely transformed the economy from a statist model to a more free market one. Many previously Government-owned enterprises have been privatised.

Tourism is a major and growing source of income, estimated at around $23 billion and as such, becoming increasingly important to the financing of the country’s current account deficit.

Twenty seven percent of all visitors to Turkey visit Istanbul, which in April this year was voted Europe’s best destination.  At the same time the city’s tourist officials announced a 23.8 per cent increase in tourism numbers for the same quarter last year, with a total of 10 million visitors expected for the year.  The 2013 MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index survey found that Istanbul was the sixth most visited city in the world, and with 9.5 percent growth, one of the fastest growing cities in terms of visitor numbers.  The report states that if all top 10 destination cities maintain their current rates of growth in the next few years, then by 2016 Istanbul will surpass Singapore, New York and Paris in terms of international visitor arrivals.

What these facts and figures demonstrate is what should be a very bright future for Turkey and its beating heart, Istanbul.  Its accession to the EU would complete a process begun after the first World War when Mustafa Kemel Ataturk inherited an empire in collapse and defeat and took some extraordinary steps to drag his nation into the 20th century as a modern secular state.

Turkey has been trying to gain acceptance into the EU for 26 years.  Talks on its potential membership had been stalled for three years and were supposed to resume this week, but following the Prime Minister’s heavy-handed response to the protests and aggressive reaction to criticism from the international media and other nations, Germany (and the Netherlands) voted to block further negotiations for the time being.  Germany is Turkey’s biggest export and second biggest import trading partner, and largest source of tourist numbers.  Its President, Angela Merkel faces her own election this year on September 22 and has already demonstrated she won’t be inclined to take a soft stand on Prime Minister Erdogan’s intransigence towards his citizens.

While Turkey would easily meet many of the EU’s economic and social requirements for membership, it must also demonstrate respect for civil rights, freedom of the press and other democratic values.  Based on recent events, it will fail.  In terms of its Olympic aspirations and the recent riots in Brazil (due to host the 2016 Olympics) it may also fail.

Despite the seemingly large groundswell of citizens turning against him, Prime Minister Erdogan is undoubtedly a popular politician and one of the modern nation’s most successful.  He has never lost an election and in each of his last three elections for Prime Minister he increased his vote.  In 2011 he received close to 50 percent of the popular vote giving him a considerable mandate to enact his campaign promises.  Throughout his political career he has challenged the boundaries of the secular state.  In his early political days he was a key member of the Islamist Welfare Party which was outlawed by the constitutional court as a threat to the nation’s secular laws and he was subsequently jailed and banned from politics for inciting religious hatred.  His election promises, including the curbing of the availability of alcohol recently pushed through the Parliament, have divided the country, and led many to speculate on the future of the secular state.

His recent utterances in response to the riots have been troubling and strongly suggest a return to former less democratic times.  The role of the military, which has historically acted as the guardian of secularism but largely sidelined under Erdogan, is yet to be seen.

Turkey therefore stands at a crossroad with feet on either side of the past and the future.  Whether the Prime Minister will heed the call of citizens wanting more transparency democracy and free speech or continue the drive towards an Islamist state is yet to be determined, but there is much to lose.