Battered Turkish Economy Puts a Powerful Erdogan to the Test

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ISTANBUL — Hobbled by restrictions on his tobacco shop, Ozgur Akbas helped organize a demonstration in Istanbul last month to protest what he called unfair rules imposed on merchants during the pandemic.

“There are many friends who have shut down,” he said in an interview. “And some are on the verge of suicide.”

Turks had been grappling with a falling currency and double-digit inflation for two years when the pandemic hit in March, sharply worsening the country’s deep recession. Nine months in, as a second wave of the virus sweeps through Turkey, there are signs that a significant portion of the population is overwhelmed by debt and increasingly going hungry.

MetroPoll Research, a respected polling organization, found in a recent survey that 25 percent of respondents said they could not meet their basic needs. Mr. Akbas said he sees it daily among his customers.

But critics have described Mr. Erdogan’s various maneuvers as too little, too late.

The former finance minister, Berat Albayrak, may have been a convenient scapegoat — little is known of what really went down inside the Presidential Palace — but his dramatic fall from grace and complete disappearance from public life indicate a more serious course correction. It seems the economic crunch and the consequences for Mr. Erdogan’s own fate have become paramount concerns.

Mehmet Ali Kulat, who conducts opinion polls for political parties, including for Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said the president watches opinion polls assiduously.

“What he particularly pays attention to is how things reflect on society,” Mr. Kulat said.

Recent opinion polls show that the standing of Mr. Erdogan’s A.K. Party has fallen to its lowest point in the 19 years it has been at the helm of Turkish politics, hovering around 30 percent, according to MetroPoll. That figure suggests that the party’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party would fail to secure Mr. Erdogan the 50 percent of the vote needed to win a presidential election.

“The next elections are not a slam dunk,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a good chance he will lose unless he either broadens his coalition or manages to appeal to people who voted for the opposition.”

“His chances of being re-elected are less than 50 percent,” she said. “So finally,” she added, the question is, “Is he smart enough?”

The MetroPoll survey found that a majority of Mr. Erdogan’s own supporters, and 63 percent of respondents overall, believe Turkey is headed in a worse, rather than a better, direction.

Those figures are borne out by what aid organizations are seeing on the ground.

Hacer Foggo, founder of the Deep Poverty Network, a group that helps street traders and informal workers, said that in her nearly 20 years of working to alleviate urban poverty in Turkey she had never seen such distress.

When the first lockdown began in March, she began receiving calls from people begging for help in feeding their families. Street vendors and scrap collectors were particularly badly hit.

“When they say there is no food at home, this means there is no food at their neighbor’s either,” she said.

Her network has been helping 2,500 families in Istanbul, matching donors with families to help them buy groceries and diapers for children. Her voice cracked as she described a mother who said her baby had gone down a size in diapers.

“A baby should be gaining weight, not getting smaller,” Ms. Foggo said. Other women could no longer breastfeed because they lacked food, she said, and more people have been forced to hunt for already scarce food in garbage.

“I am 52 years old, and this is the biggest crisis I have ever seen,” she said.

The economic problems began before the pandemic, she said, but she laid the blame squarely on local and national governments for their lack of strategy for confronting the growing poverty and failing to improve social services.

Indeed, the economic tailspin came after Mr. Erdogan tightened his reins on the country, including over the economy, by acquiring sweeping new powers under a new presidential system inaugurated in 2018. International monitors cite those changes as a main reason for their alarm about the country’s economic plunge.

“Turkey’s weak and deteriorating governance is a key credit weakness, which underpinned our decision to downgrade Turkey’s rating by multiple notches since the introduction of the presidential system in mid-2018,” Moody’s said in a report this month.

Mr. Akbas, the merchant running the tobacco shop, described two elderly customers who came into his shop in a wealthy part of the capital, Ankara, one day last week as an illustration of how badly skyrocketing inflation has affected people.

One woman asked if she could buy a single egg. The second woman, who was neatly turned out, asked if he had any free bread. Stunned, he filled a bag for her.

“Retirees are in a very bad situation,” he said. “What I am hearing from people is ‘Enough is enough. We have had it up to our necks, we cannot make money,’ and people aged 70 and 80 are saying they are going to throw themselves in the street.”

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