Will Turkey’s inflation crisis damage Erdogan’s re-election chances?

A month before Turkey goes to the polls on May 14, the country’s inflation crisis is a major campaign theme as the six main opposition parties rally around Kemal Kilicdaroglu to create the strongest challenge yet to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But analysts say discontent with Erdogan’s economic management will not automatically translate into votes for Kilicdaroglu – especially given the prominence of cultural issues in Turkish politics.

It was telling that Erdogan focused on economic promises when he finally launched his presidential election campaign on April 11, more than two weeks after the secular CHP’s leader Kilicdaroglu. “We’ll bring inflation down to single digits and definitely save our country from this problem,” President Erdogan told his supporters at a stadium in Ankara.

Turkey does indeed need saving from inflation. While growth is robust, the most recent official statistics show inflation running at over 50 percent year-on-year in March, after it reached a quarter-of-a-century peak at over 85 percent in October.

Few doubt that the real figures are much higher: “It’s very clear that the government has been playing with the numbers; the real experience of everyday citizens is considerably more dire,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University and the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy in Washington, DC.

The Turkish lira fell to an all-time low against the dollar in March – the latest of its periodic collapses in the currency and inflation crisis that has racked the Turkish economy since 2018.

Experts blame the crisis on Erdogan’s belief – against all economic evidence – that high interest rates fuel inflation, which has prompted him to cut rates when tight monetary policy is needed to reduce inflation.

‘Really dire’

All this marks a colossal change from the economic outlook in the early years of Erdogan’s rule, back when the Western commentariat lauded him as a forward-thinking reformer.

Erdogan’s moderate Islamist AKP party pulled off an extraordinary feat in the 2003 Turkish elections, overcoming the secularist hegemony cemented in the 1920s by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The 2001 Turkish economic crisis was a major factor behind the AKP’s victory – and when Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, he set about reviving the economy and turning it into a powerhouse.

Bolstered by IMF support and buoyant conditions in Europe, Turkish GDP growth averaged 7.2 percent from 2002 to 2007. Many voters in Erdogan’s core constituency – working-class, socially conservative Muslims in the heartlands of Anatolia, the Asian part of Turkey – joined the ranks of the middle class.

But over the past five years, the inflation and currency crisis has affected all segments of Turkish society, from Istanbul’s Europhile bourgeoisie to pious, working-class voters in the Anatolian heartland.

“The daily lives of Turkish citizens are being squeezed in very fundamental ways,” Eissenstat said. “People who think of themselves as middle-class are having tremendous difficulty maintaining a basic standard of living. And for the vast majority of Turks who live week-to-week and month-to-month in the best of circumstances, the situation has become really dire; just putting food on the table has become a major struggle.”

Unreliable polls?

Polls suggest the president is losing support in the current economic context. Erdogan and the AKP repeatedly sailed to re-election over the past twenty years – but the latest survey by Mediapoll puts Kilicdaroglu slightly ahead for the first round, at 42.6 percent compared to 41.1 percent for Erdogan.

“I want change,” Selman Deveci, a voter in Konya, a traditionally AKP-supporting territory in the Anatolian heartland, told the Financial Times. “They’ve screwed the economy.”

But Deveci was not impressed with the opposition either: “I don’t have faith in them.”

Analysts say this attitude of disillusionment with Erdogan but scepticism towards the opposition looks to be quite widespread – casting doubt on Kilicdaroglu’s lead in some polls.

“I’m not sure I’m very trusting of the polling,” Eissenstat said. “A lot of outside observers tend to just assume that … because the economic situation is bad, people will jump ship – but not necessarily. I suspect a fair number of AKP voters will return to them, after flirting with the idea of doing something else.”

After all, many Western observers underestimated Erdogan the last time around, in 2018 – expecting then-CHP leader Muharrem Ince to push the president into a second-round runoff after a spirited campaign. Ultimately, Erdogan clinched the necessary majority in the first round with 53 percent, winning 10 million more votes than Ince.

Culture war

The economy’s consequence in determining elections is one of the oldest rules in politics, most famously encapsulated by the cliché “It’s the economy, stupid!”, a mantra for staffers created by Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville during the successful challenge to George HW Bush for the US presidency amid 1992’s deepening recession. But not every electoral campaign takes place in the kind of context the US had in 1992, when pervasive political tribalism was confined to its past and future.

A fissure has run through Turkish society ever since the early 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk severed the profound links between Islam and politics that characterised the Ottoman Empire.

After coming to power, Erdogan slowly but surely brought Islam back into the heart of Turkish public life, eroding the power of Kemalism (so named for the secular philosophy espoused by the republic’s founder) and the “deep state” military-judicial nexus that had long buttressed it.

The anger of Turkey’s largely metropolitan secularists attracted international attention during the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul – but Erdogan retained his popularity among his millions of supporters in the Anatolian heartland, many of whom welcomed his triumph over the old establishment.

This cultural divide has many different characteristics from those seen in Europe and the US. But “culture war stuff matters in Turkey as it does in the West”, Eissenstat underlined.

And the technological changes of the last decade are amplifying this phenomenon, he added: “In a world of social media – of experiencing the world through news sources of our political choosing – political identification and ideology play a greater role in voting behaviour than before, as we’ve seen not just in Turkey but France, the US and the UK.”

All that said, as the presidential candidate uniting a heterogenous bloc of opposition parties, Kilicdaroglu has adopted a far more pragmatic stance on Turkey’s culture wars than his CHP predecessors.

Last year, Kilicdaroglu shifted the CHP’s position on women’s headscarves, a totemic issue in Turkish politics. Ataturk had discouraged the wearing of headscarves in the 1920s and his successors gradually introduced explicit bans applying at public institutions, which Erdogan then reversed in several stages.

Not only did Kilicdaroglu say the CHP had “made mistakes in the past” by supporting headscarf restrictions, he also endorsed a constitutional amendment upholding women’s right to wear it.

This strategy will make it easier for Kilicdaroglu to emphasise the economy, suggested Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau. “The culture war is the main driver of Turkish politics, but not the only one,” he said. “Kilicdaroglu has softened the impact of polarisation with his conciliatory discourse. Therefore the economy will play a more significant role than usual in these elections.”

Return to orthodoxy?

Kilicdaroglu’s economic platform is a return to orthodox monetary policy and central bank independence. Beyond that, the opposition has avoided getting into the nitty-gritty details of economic policy.

But while it is a simple answer to the inflationary crisis, returning to economic orthodoxy is not such an easy sell for the Turkish opposition.

“The opposition is promising a return to confidence and normalcy, but their problem is that confidence and normalcy requires short-term pain,” Eissenstat noted. “That means they’d rather keep the conversation about how Turkey got into this mess, keeping the election as a referendum on Erdogan, without too many questions about what the opposition in power would look like.”

“Providing economic confidence and returning to governing fundamentals is what Turkey needs,” he concluded. “But it wouldn’t necessarily be popular or easy.”

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Pro-Bolsonaro rioters storm Brazil’s top government offices

Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who refuse to accept his electoral defeat stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace in the capital on Sunday, just a week after the inauguration of his leftist rival, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Thousands of demonstrators bypassed security barricades, climbed on roofs, smashed windows and invaded all three buildings, which were believed to be largely vacant on the weekend. Some of the demonstrators called for a military intervention to either restore the far-right Mr. Bolsonaro to power or oust Mr. Lula from the presidency.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed “deep concern” in a statement on Twitter and added, “We extend our full support to the Brazilian authorities.”

Hours went by before control of the buildings on Brasilia’s vast Three Powers Square was reestablished, with hundreds of the participants arrested.

Brazil’s top court removes Brasilia governor 

Brazil Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes decided late on Sunday to remove Brasilia Governor Ibaneis Rocha for 90 days alleging security flaws that allowed the invasion of government buildings.

Mr. Moraes also ruled that camps outside military bases set up by coup-mongering Bolsonaro supporters should be lifted within 24 hours and that roads and buildings should be unblocked.

Mr. Moraes further ordered social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to block accounts of users spreading anti-democratic propaganda.

In a news conference from Sao Paulo state, Mr. Lula accused Mr. Bolsonaro of encouraging the uprising by those he termed “fascist fanatics,” and he read a freshly signed decree for the federal government to take control of security in the federal district.

Also read: Opinion | Bolsonaro’s legacy will take time to undo

“There is no precedent for what they did and these people need to be punished,” Mr. Lula said.

TV channel Globo News showed protesters wearing the green and yellow colors of the national flag that also have come to symbolize the nation’s conservative movement and were adopted by Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters.

The former president has repeatedly sparred with Supreme Court justices, and the room where they convene was trashed by the rioters. They sprayed fire hoses inside the Congress building and ransacked offices at the presidential palace. Windows were broken in all of the buildings.

Security forces operate as supporters of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

Mr. Bolsonaro, who flew to Florida ahead of Lula’s inauguration, repudiated the president’s accusation late Sunday. He wrote on Twitter that peaceful protest is part of democracy but vandalism and invasion of public buildings are “exceptions to the rule.”

Police fired tear gas in their efforts to recover the buildings, and were shown on television in the late afternoon marching protesters down a ramp from the presidential palace with their hands secured behind their backs. By early evening, with authorities’ control of the buildings restored, Justice Minister Flavio Dino said in a news conference that roughly 200 people had been arrested and officers were firing more tear gas to drive away lingering protesters.

But with the damage already done, many in Brazil were questioning how the police had ignored abundant warnings, were unprepared or were somehow complicit.

Mr. Lula said at his news conference there was “incompetence or bad faith″ on the part of police, and that they had been likewise complacent when Bolsonaro supporters rioted in the capital weeks ago. He promised those officers would be punished and expelled from the corps.

Unlike the 2021 attack in the U.S., it is likely that few officials were working in the Brazilian Congress and Supreme Court on a Sunday.

Biden calls Brazil’s pro-Bolsonaro violence ‘outrageous’

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters that the riots in Brazil were “outrageous.” His national security adviser Jake Sullivan went a step further on Twitter and said the U.S. “condemns any effort to undermine democracy in Brazil.”

Mr. Biden later tweeted that he looked forward to continuing to work with Lula, calling the riots an “assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil.”

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly tweeted: “The violent attempts to undermine democracy in Brazil are unjustifiable. President @LulaOficial and the government of Brazil have the full support of the UK.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also said on Twitter that he condemned the assault on Brazil’s democratic institutions but he was confident “the will of the Brazilian people and the country’s institutions” would be respected.

Earlier videos on social media showed a limited presence of the capital’s military police; one showed officers standing by as people flooded into Congress, with one using his phone to record images. The capital’s security secretariat didn’t respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment about the relative absence of the police.

“Brazilian authorities had two years to learn the lessons from the Capitol invasion and to prepare themselves for something similar in Brazil,” said Maurício Santoro, political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “Local security forces in Brasilia failed in a systematic way to prevent and to respond to extremist actions in the city. And the new federal authorities, such as the ministers of justice and of defense, were not able to act in a decisive way.”

Federal District Gov. Ibaneis Rocha confirmed on Twitter he had fired the capital city’s head of public security, Anderson Torres. Local media reported that Torres is currently in the U.S.

Supporters of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro are pictured on top of the National Congress’s dome during a demonstration against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia.

Supporters of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro are pictured on top of the National Congress’s dome during a demonstration against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

The office of Mr. Lula’s attorney general asked the Supreme Court to order Torres’ imprisonment.

Bolsonaro supporters have been protesting Mr. Lula’s electoral win since Oct. 30, blocking roads, setting vehicles on fire and gathering outside military buildings, urging the armed forces to intervene. The head of Brazil’s electoral authority rejected the request from Mr. Bolsonaro and his political party to nullify ballots cast on most electronic voting machines.

“Two years since Jan. 6, Trump’s legacy continues to poison our hemisphere,” U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate’s foreign relations committee, tweeted, adding that he blamed Bolsonaro for inciting the acts. “Protecting democracy & holding malign actors to account is essential.”



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