ISTANBUL – Lines in front of bread shops and gas stations; farmers in default of payment; impromptu street demonstrations. Signs of economic distress in Turkey are all too clear as the pound continues on a steep slide.
Sporadic protests have erupted around Turkey and opposition parties have called for a series of rallies to demand a change of government after the pound fell sharply last week. The latest week of unrest follows months of deteriorating economic conditions for Turkish citizens. The currency lost more than 45% of its value this year, and nearly 20% last week, continuing its downtrend on Tuesday.
Economists have linked the currency crisis to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s direct interference in monetary policy and his determination to lower interest rates.
The latest currency crash came after Mr Erdogan gave a speech last week stressing his determination to keep rates low as a way to promote economic growth. He reiterated his opposition to a further rate hike in comments to reporters aboard his plane as he returned from a visit to Turkmenistan on Monday.
“I have never defended raising interest rates, I am not defending it now and will not defend it,” he told reporters. “I will never compromise on this issue.”
There are rumblings of public dissent, unusual for a country where only officially authorized protests are allowed and where major TV stations and newspapers follow the government’s line.
Dozens of people have been arrested for joining street protests. Police arrested 70 people last Wednesday in several districts of Istanbul protesting against the government’s management of the economy, after a record drop in the read the day before.
The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions released a blunt statement on Wednesday. “It’s enough. We want to make ends meet,” we read. “Unemployment, high cost of living, price increases and bills are breaking our backs.”
Necla Sazak, an 80-year-old retired bank worker returning home with a grocery bag, said she was surviving on credit cards.
âOur purchasing power has dropped – our money is no longer valuable,â she said.
Business has stalled across the country as inflation scares domestic buyers and pushes producers to hoard goods.
âI haven’t sold anything since the morning,â Asuman Akkus, 29, owner of a clothing store in Istanbul, said one recent afternoon. “It’s deserted here this week and it’s 100% because of the dollar.”
Opposition parties have renewed their call for the resignation of the government and for Mr Erdogan or Parliament to call early elections. Still, they are at an impasse, with no seats in parliament to force the vote for an early election, and fear triggering unrest that could prompt Mr Erdogan to impose a state of emergency, which would suspend normal democratic procedures.
Mr Erdogan, who slips in the polls, will not call an election until they are scheduled for June 2023, political ally Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, said last week. Meanwhile, Erdogan has stepped up the pressure on his opponents by arresting Metin Gurcan, a military and political analyst and leading member of a new opposition party, DEVA, on charges of espionage.
Mr Erdogan vowed that low interest rates would help revive the economy within three to six months, but economists said they saw little confidence in his policies at this point.
“I think he no longer has the confidence of the nation,” said Atilla Yesilada, investment analyst at Global Source Partners. âThere is an urgent problem of worsening poverty and the wheels of the economy are coming to a standstill,â he said.
Some of Erdogan’s loyalists, interviewed, insist that all is well, but even pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi of the Turkish daily Hurriyet said he disagreed with Erdogan’s economic policies. He recalled an episode from a previous economic crisis in 2001, when a merchant threw his cash register at the Prime Minister, sparking a nationwide revolt.
“We cannot ignore what is happening today,” Selvi warned. He added: âWe must remain strong, but we must not ignore the fact that great economic turmoil has broad political consequences. “
Shortages are emerging, especially in imported medicines and medical equipment, and even in bakeries, said Mr. Yesilada, the analyst. A loaf of bread still sells for Lira 2.5, or about 20 cents, but bakeries complain their costs are closer to Lira 4 a loaf, he said. âSoon they’re going to close the bakeries and then we’re going to have bread riots,â he said.
The Turkish public only talks about economics.
âWe used to go for tea with our friends in a cafe somewhere, but now a glass of tea costs 7 lire so we don’t go,â said Cansu Aydin, a high school graduate. “Our social lives have come to a standstill, and now it’s like we’re just living to survive.”
Oguzhan Yelda, 21, a student in Istanbul, said he was particularly concerned about “utility bills and basic items like oil, sugar, flour”. Many young people were leaving the country to take menial jobs as cleaners and waiters abroad, he said. “When I graduate, a bleak future awaits me.”
Dogan Gul, 60, sat outside a bank in Istanbul on Monday, waiting for it to open so he could make a payment on a loan. âWe cannot get away with this,â he said. âThe rent has gone from 1,500 lire to almost 2,500 lire since last year. I don’t know where this all leads.
He said he couldn’t afford the transportation costs to visit relatives.
âFor the future of my children, what can I say? He lamented. âThey each try to make sure they have a meal once a day. They can’t even think about tomorrow. They cannot plan for their future. This is not only the case for me, but for all of Turkey.
For Yaman Ayhan, who sells clothes online, the answer is simple. âLeaders must change,â he said. “A simple early election ruling would add value to the reading.”