By Carlotta Gall
At a recent rally to open the campaign before municipal elections in March, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was heckled by a group of public workers demanding jobs. But he was having none of it.
“Do not expect anything from us,” a visibly angry Erdogan scolded the upstarts at the rally in the eastern province of Sivas. “I’m not an ordinary politician and do not provoke this meeting.”
Other supporters cheered, drowning out the protest. But it was a moment telling of Erdogan’s vulnerability as ordinary Turks feel the deepening pain of the country’s economic slide for the first time in his 17 years in power.
After long unbroken growth, Turkey is entering a recession amid falling investor confidence and a credit crisis. Bankruptcies have increased. Unemployment and inflation have hit double digits. Rising prices, especially at vegetable markets, have become a national obsession.
The widening economic crisis now presents the president’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, with one of the stiffest challenges yet to its important base of support in small towns and cities as the local elections approach.
Erdogan, who remains popular, has led his party’s campaign. But while he may be able to whip some members into line, the economy is unlikely to be so easily moved.
The president’s formula of deflecting blame for economic troubles is now being combined with other, more drastic measures — in particular, trying to suppress prices at fruit and vegetable markets as he attempts to maintain his party’s support.
Already in election mode, Erdogan has resorted to well-tested tactics on the campaign trail. He blames rising costs on a foreign conspiracy. He accuses money-grubbing middlemen of extorting customers. He lashes out at opposition politicians for whipping up a fake campaign of economic hardships.
“Tomatoes, potatoes, aubergine, green peppers, et cetera,’’ Erdogan told party election officials this month. ‘’My siblings, all of this is just a gimmick.”
The government had sent out inspectors to keep prices down at the wholesale markets, he said.
When the inspectors encountered a hostile reception from the wholesalers, Erdogan compared their attackers to terrorists.
“They attempted to beat up our inspectors. Why? Because they kicked the hornet’s nest,” he said.
“If there are those who think they are stronger than the state, they should know that we will finish those who terrorized the wholesale market as soon as possible, as the state finished the terrorists in Cudi, in Gabar, in Tendurek, inside the caves,” he said, in a reference to Turkey’s counterterrorism operations against Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.
“Can we allow our nation to be exploited? We will join hands and God willing will finish this exploitation,” he said.
Erdogan, who won elections last year to a newly powerful presidency, is personally secure. No Turkish politician comes close to matching his popularity.
But the municipalities are the base of AKP’s support and are critical to its hold on power and its reputation for being able to provide services, mainly for the urban working-class and conservative communities.
There, at the local level, indicators show its support to be slipping. The party failed to win a majority in parliamentary elections last year, forcing it to go into a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party, and it faces a similar test in local elections March 21.
Some polls show the party’s popularity hovering just around 30 percent. Even pro-government columnists and insiders are warning that it is losing popularity, blaming corrupt or incompetent local officials.
Cevdet Yilmaz, deputy chairman of the AKP, denied the party was slipping in the polls at a news briefing last month but admitted that opinion polls showed an exceptionally high number of undecided voters.
Nevertheless, Yilmaz said he was confident that the party would deliver a result equal to the parliamentary election last year.
“The AK party has strong leadership, political stability in Turkey, and if there are hardships in the economy the right answer is the AK party rather than other smaller parties,” he said. “People make realistic assessments of the situation and I believe the effect of the economy will be marginal in that sense in voter preferences.”
Yet there is no doubt that prices — which escalated sharply after the Turkish lira lost more than 25 percent on its value in 2018 — are uppermost in Turks’ minds.
Shoppers and traders in Istanbul’s neighborhood markets were reluctant to voice criticism of the government, but the tension over prices was evident. One shopper said her hands were trembling as she handled peppers that have tripled in price in recent weeks.
And most interviewed were cleareyed about where the problem of rising prices lay. Storms destroyed greenhouses, ruining much of the green pepper crop this year and causing a shortage.
But even before this year, farmers have been struggling as a result of economic policies that neglected agriculture in favor of infrastructure and housing development.
“Turkey’s fundamental problem about food prices is the agricultural policy,” said Ahmet Atalik, head of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Agricultural Engineers.
The government turned to importing foodstuffs and as a result farmers could no longer earn a living and have steadily abandoned their fields.
“They move to the cities, they just quit,” Atalik said.
In the 17 years of Erdogan’s rule more than 7.4 million acres of farmland, an area roughly the size of Belgium, has been taken out of cultivation. The number of registered farmers has dropped from 2.8 million to 2.1 million in the last 10 years, he said.
In a sign of their concern at rising prices, Erdogan and his Cabinet have been swift to intervene to contain the political fallout.
“Of course, it even attracted the attention of our president,” Commerce Minister Ruhsar Pekcan said, announcing on television that her ministry had ordered price controls in all 81 provinces. “What is important is that the people at the first level feel it. And we are taking measures about that.”
Erdogan has announced a raft of measures himself, including discounts of 10 percent on household electricity and natural gas bills, which have increased several times in recent months, and similar breaks for small and medium businesses.
The government raised the minimum wage a startling 26 percent at the beginning of the year, and floated a new law to remove state commissioners who act as middlemen between farmers and the market.
As the election campaign opened, the government set up temporary municipal market stalls to sell fruit and vegetables at cost, rapidly drawing lines of customers. But the approach may entail certain risks.
If the government is breaking a monopoly in the markets and introducing competition, then it is doing the right thing and could bring prices down, said Selva Demiralp, professor of economics at Koc University in Istanbul.
But if the government is purchasing the vegetables at the same wholesale market and subsidizing the low prices, it will harm the market structure.
“The answer is probably somewhere in between,” she said.