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Turkey’s Erdogan faces toughest election yet and lures voters with ‘good news’


ISTANBUL – Facing tough elections in just a few months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unleashed a wave of government spending – to help his country’s millions recover from economic hardship, and ensure their votes go his way.

The enticements – aimed at students, working people and business owners, commuters and others – include tax relief, cheap loans, energy subsidies and even pledges not to increase road and bridge tolls. Their rapid rollout has highlighted the electoral commitment to Erdogan, a popular leader who dominated Turkish politics for two decades and took a crucial mediating role during Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite his stature, at home and abroad, he is more vulnerable than ever before to challenges from the opposition as a public battered by historically high inflation clamors for change in many quarters.

“The economy is eating away at its base,” said Berk Esen, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

Last month, Erdogan abolished a retirement age requirement that would allow more than 2 million workers to retire early and collect their pensions — a move he vehemently opposed a few years ago. “Why retire early?” he said in November 2019, labeling the benefit as a measure pushed by nefarious lobbyists, and a financial burden so huge it had hindered countries in Europe.

“I will not participate in anything that is detrimental to my nation, even if it loses us an election,” he said at the time.

But so much has changed. The president and his ruling Justice and Development Party have suffered an erosion of popular support during a long economic crisis marked by rising house prices and the collapse of the currency. The disaster has created an opening for Erdogan’s political opponents, with opinion polls showing some opposition members gaining a slight lead over the president in the upcoming elections.

Balloting here is seen as a game of centimeters, with voters, including disgruntled members of the president’s own base, up for grabs. Erdogan recently said that elections, including for parliament, will take place in mid-May.

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The economic measures announced in recent months – “good news,” as Erdogan usually calls them – include raising the minimum wage to $450 a month, doubling the previous year’s increase. Erdogan has offered low-interest mortgages, canceled student loan rates and touted a $10 billion support package for merchants.

On Monday, Erdogan said a draft law would allow “citizens and businesses” to restructure debts owed to the government, including the elimination of small fines for taxes. The roots aren’t just financial: Last week he announced the elimination of driver’s license fines for all but the most serious offences, such as drink-driving, saying about 10,000 suspended licenses would be reinstated.

But the economy “will certainly be the biggest problem in the upcoming election,” Esen said. “If Erdogan can figure out a way to handle that crisis — to make it clear to voters that he will rescue them from the economic wreckage,” he said, the president could convince disgruntled members of his own base to return home. times – especially out there. big cities, where the money would go further. Since the end of the summer, polls have shown that Erdogan’s popularity has risen by a few percentage points, Esen added, a rise he attributed to the government’s economic offerings.

For many others, however, the government’s spending spree has barely made a dent. Nurten Caylak, 44, said the minimum wage her husband earns is barely enough to cover their rent, which has risen from about $100 a month to $300 over the past year.

“This is what Turkey is dealing with,” she said as she walked to work in Istanbul’s Kurtulus neighborhood earlier this month: her first job, in a clothing store, which she had taken a few months ago to support the family’s income. to fill. She suggested that she had voted for Erdogan and his party in the past.

“I vote differently in this election,” she said.

But Erdogan has been aided by his political opponents, who have so far failed to name a candidate to challenge him and offer a “clear alternative,” Esen said.

“The opposition had a chance to deal a big blow to Erdogan, but they failed to really deliver,” he added.

The Turkish leader has also used expansive, autocratic powers to quell challenges to his rule, including a years-long government crackdown on news media that have stifled independent reporting. Erdogan’s political opponents — including a pro-Kurdish party and one of the president’s main political rivals, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu — have also been targeted by prosecutors.

In December, a Turkish court sentenced Imamoglu to prison on charges of “insulting public figures” – charges that human rights groups have derided as politically motivated, and which, if upheld by higher courts, would bar the mayor from holding public office and remove him from office. prevent running against Erdogan.

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But inflation remains a core vulnerability for Erdogan. It reached more than 80 percent in the fall and fell to 64 percent in December. While prices of common goods have soared, since 2019 inflation has caused “a loss in real wages of about 5 percent,” said Eric Yeldan, an economics professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

“People have no defense mechanisms against inflation,” he said.

The government’s response amounts to “arbitrary, ad hoc, erratic interventions in the labor market in terms of wage support programs, the financing of which is highly questionable,” he said. “Politically, it is colored as a subsidy from Erdogan – Erdogan’s gratitude. In economic terms, who ultimately pays for these costs?” he said, referring to the billions spent by the government.

Metin Ozkan, 23, the owner of an online sales company, suggested that the minimum wage increase was pointless as prices seemed to rise every few months. Other recently announced government spending, such as the pension program, was “a burden on youth,” he said.

In Istanbul’s Fatih district, Ersin Fuat Ulku, a 40-year-old manager of a restaurant chain, said government aid had barely kept pace with sky-high prices, such as those on his menu, which had risen 13 times over the past year.

“There is no middle class anymore. There is only very rich or very poor,” he said. He planned to move to Germany, he said, though his wife, an accountant, resisted. But he thought of their little boy.

“She’s going to have to agree to it eventually,” he said. “The future here is dark.”

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