Unrest in Turkey grows as Erdogan’s ‘economic war’ affects cost of living

As Turks worried this week about the plunging lira and soaring cost of living, they received some surprising advice from a lawmaker from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party: simple Simply eat less.

“Let’s say, under normal circumstances, we eat a kilo or two of meat a month. Eat half a kilo,” Zulfu Demirbag said in headlining comments on Tuesday as the coin fell as much as 15% against the dollar. “If we buy two kilograms of tomatoes, let’s buy two tomatoes,” he continued, echoing Erdogan’s story by calling on the public to join the resistance against the forces of darkness trying to trying to sabotage Turkey.

Such conspiratorial rhetoric can still work for staunch supporters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who see the president as a powerful leader is fighting to assert Turkey’s rightful place in the world order. But for most of the public, it is wearing very thin.

Column chart of % year-to-year change against the US dollar shows the Turkish lira's historical decline

“There is a core group of people who will vote for the party and Erdogan no matter what,” said Sinem Adar, an associate at the Center for Applied Turkish Studies in Berlin. “But [AKP] voters are increasingly disgruntled about policies and government. There’s been a steady decline since September in every reliable poll. ”

The Turkish people have been thrown between horror and panic as they watched the lira slide after the country’s central bank, at Erdogan’s behest, cut its benchmark interest rate for a third straight month. official inflation was at 20% last month. The lira is down more than 20% against the dollar since early November. Its downward spiral accelerated after the president announced on Monday that the country was fighting a “war for economic independence” ” like the country’s liberation struggle in the 1920s and suggested that interest rates would continue to be cut.

Technology company Apple halted online sales in Turkey on Tuesday as the currency fell past 11, 12 and then 13 against the dollar, making it impossible for manufacturers to price products. their products. “When I entered the elevator, the dollar was 11.55. When I went out it was 12:15,” a young lawyer in Istanbul said in a tweet that quickly went viral.

As they watched the tumultuous situation from afar, many international investors predicted that Erdogan would eventually agree to a sharp rate hike to stem the currency’s fall, as he did during the major currency crisis. finally in summer 2018.

But Turkish observers suspect the President is unhappy with the currency’s plunge. “I don’t think this is a result of ignorance or a ‘crazy’ move just because of religious beliefs,” said Ibrahim Turhan, a former AKP member of parliament who is now part of the separatist party. “In my opinion, this is a calculated policy change.”

Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for nearly two decades, has suggested so himself, arguing this week that “competitive exchange rates open the way for strong investment, production and employment.” “. Opposition parties have reacted by accusing the president of “betrayal” because he is clearly indifferent to increasing difficulties in an import-dependent country that means a falling lira every time will push up prices. basic goods go up.

Analysts left wondering how far the president, who built his early political success on rising national prosperity, is willing to let the currency slide – and what the consequences will be. What to his political future if, as some economists warn, depreciation leads to hyperinflation of 30% or more.

Erdogan and his ally Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement party (MHP), have dismissed growing calls by the opposition to hold elections scheduled for 2023.

Adar said: “I always ask myself if the alliance can last until 2023 when it is waning very quickly. “What if it suddenly collapsed? What if the MHP or the security apparatus withdraws its support from the governing coalition? ”

Others say the pressure is more likely to come from defectors within the ruling party. “You don’t want to be an AKP MP while the ship is sinking, especially if you are not in the inner circle,” said Can Selcuki, director of the Turkiye Raporu polling agency. Turkiye Raporu Voting Authority.

While life this week has largely remained normal in a country that has experienced countless terrorist attacks, a coup and numerous financial turmoil over the past six years, there are small signs indicates an increasing insecurity. Long queues formed at some gas stations before the price increase. Small protests, some organized by the Communist Party of Turkey, have led to arrests in Istanbul and Ankara.

Selim Koru, an analyst with the Ankara-based Tepav think tank, said that Erdogan would use force if larger numbers took to the streets. “His supporters are now in the minority, and they are losing ground,” he said. “He will be increasingly afraid of the protests.”

Some opposition voters think that the Turkish president, who has adopted increasingly authoritarian tactics in recent years, could seek to postpone the elections or even cancel them altogether if he seems to as efforts to increase his support through legal means yielded no results.

Members of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) expressed concern at the group’s executive committee meeting on Thursday that the Turkish president might declare a state of emergency.

A senior opposition official dismissed those concerns. But he added: “When we think about the government running this country, nothing is impossible.”

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