(CN) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian leader who's turned his country on its head for better and worse and made it into an undisputed regional power over the past two decades, is facing his biggest challenge yet: A massive financial and economic crisis.
Turks are angry and becoming suddenly poor after years of rising wealth as their country's currency, the Turkish lira, sinks in value before their eyes and long lines form outside bread stores. The opposition to Erdogan, who faces reelection before or by June 2023, is on the rise.
The ramifications of Turkey's economic meltdown are huge: With its 83 million people and one of the world's biggest economies, Turkey plays a major role in world affairs.
It has NATO's second-largest military after that of the United States; it's a regional powerbroker and become assertive under Erdogan with military actions in Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus and North Africa; it possesses the keys to a Black Sea desperately needed by Russia; and it's a gateway between Europe and Asia, acting as the gatekeeper for millions of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers who see jobs and peace in the European Union as their best hope.
In Turkey, fears of a catastrophic run on the banks are palpable. Since September, the lira has sunk and lost about half of its value. Ankara is doing all it can to persuade Turks to not panic and keep their money deposited in Turkish lira.
But economists are skeptical about Erdogan's unorthodox solutions, influenced in part by Islamic beliefs against usury, which means that in theory he sees interest as sinful. Central to Erdogan's regime is an Islamization of a democracy founded with the secular ideas of Mustafa Kemal, the national hero who created modern Turkey and better known by the title Ataturk, “Father of the Turks.”
“Erdogan has long pressured the central bank to keep interest rates low, because he subscribes to a crackpot theory that inflation is caused by high interest rates,” wrote Anne O. Krueger, a former World Bank chief economist, in a December piece in Project Syndicate. “Any credible economist would point out that higher, not lower, interest rates are needed to cool inflation. But Erdogan persists in his perverse belief.”
Meanwhile, inflation just keeps rising and melting away cash reserves stockpiled by households, businesses and the national government. Officially, year-on-year inflation in January rose by about 48.7%, the most in 20 years. But that's likely lowballing the economic pain Turks are suffering.
The ENAGrup, an independent Turkish research group that tracks inflation, estimates that the past year saw a 115.7% jump in the consumer price index.
In January alone, the research group found prices rising by about 15.8% across the spectrum. It calculated the cost for goods and services jumped by 31.6%. Prices at hotels, cafes and restaurants are 30.2% higher. Housing, water, gas and electricity: A whopping 33.6% increase.
“There are no prices,” said Anil Aba, an economist with Yasar University in Izmir, speaking with Courthouse News via email. “I used to know, but not anymore. Every time I shop it’s a new price. You cannot buy anything with the same price.”
“Runaway inflation stats are now part of Turkey’s news diet,” the Turkey Recap, a weekly Turkish newsletter, said on Thursday in its latest briefing.
Also part of the daily news is unrest.
“Every day, somewhere, people are protesting high power bills, low wage increases,” Aba said. “The growing public discontent is very visible now. After 20 years, the opposition has become very confident that Erdogan is going to lose.”
With their paychecks turning worthless, workers in various sectors are going on strike and demanding raises. Last week saw Turkey's largest e-commerce platform, Trendyol, cave in to demands for a wage hike. Inspired, workers elsewhere are going on strike too and demanding higher wages to keep food on their tables. Protests are breaking out too, for instance in Bodrum, where people complained about a tripling of their energy bills.