The Turkish Islamists’ first experience of long-term governance, now in its nineteenth year, has turned the country into a caricature.
With annual inflation and interest rates nearing 20 percent, youth unemployment at 30 percent, and annual per capita income having fallen to barely $7,500, the popularity of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing an unprecedented decline. Pollsters released new data last month that for the first time put his approval rating below 30 percent. According to the research house MetroPOLL, 46.5 percent of Turks say they would never vote for Erdoğan, versus 35.3 percent in December 2019.
“This is not the Turkey we dreamed of,” one close Erdoğan aide, a co-founder of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), told the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in unexpectedly brave remarks. The spiral of mismanagement has been running at full speed, at times astonishing even Erdoğan loyalists. Turks cannot decide whether to laugh or cry over several cases that hit the headlines within the span of only one month.
Cem Emre Akıncı, a restaurant owner in Kuşadası on the Aegean coast, applied to a special government relief program that offered cash support for small businesses affected by COVID-19. Akıncı completed his application, containing all the documents necessary to qualify for the support. Erdoğan’s government received the application and made a deposit into his account of 4.63 Turkish liras, or $0.56. “I hope this much money,” Akıncı drolly commented, “will not ruin my moral compass.”
Stealth alcohol ban
The Ankara government announced on April 29 that it would apply full lockdown rules until May 17. Then, in a move that displayed its usual Islamist reflex, it added alcoholic beverages to a list of commodities banned from sale on supermarket shelves. As analysts attempted to grasp the logic of linking alcohol consumption to COVID-19 (cigarette sales were not banned), the government announced a list of other commodities inexplicably placed on the ban list in an apparent attempt to camouflage its Islamist motives: porcelain, cutlery, kitchenware, toys, DIY materials, stationery, home textiles, garden furniture and car accessories.
Shutting down the Supreme Court
At the beginning of May, Erdoğan’s coalition partner, ultranationalist leader Devlet Bahçeli, announced his proposals for a new Constitution. “This constitutional proposal is the democratic torch of the 100 years that lies ahead, a move by our people to build and reclaim the future,” Bahçeli proudly announced. Except that one of his 100 constitutional proposals is to shut down the Supreme Court.
Service passports for human smuggling
The German authorities have undertaken an investigation into hundreds of Turkish nationals suspected of entering German territory on illegally obtained service passports. This “grey” passport allows visa-free entry to many countries and is usually issued to national athletes or government workers who need to be abroad to carry out their duties.
It appears that some municipalities controlled by the AKP provided hundreds of grey passports to party loyalists or sold them to family and friends, who used them to emigrate to E.U. countries, mainly Germany.
“Think about a state,” wrote columnist Mehmet Y. Yılmaz, “whose official service passport is now a source of suspicion at immigration gates abroad.”
Scientists cannot publish data
It is an open secret that the Turkish Statistics Institute (TUIK) has long published doctored inflation figures to avoid stoking public discontent against the government. Economists say the country’s actual inflation rates are at least twice the official numbers. As accusations of underreporting price data peaked, an independent inflation research group, ENAGroup, started publishing its own data in September.
In May, TUIK filed a criminal complaint against ENAGroup for publishing alternative data on inflation. The government office demanded that ENAGroup be fined for “purposefully defaming” the official statistics institution and “misguiding public opinion.”
“For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic,” Treasury and Finance Minister Lütfi Elvan said, “the group aims to ‘damage and discredit the Turkish Statistical Institute’ by spreading misleading data that are used by opposition parties.”
Disrespecting a sultan’s tomb
Ever since opposition figure Ekrem Imamoğlu won the Istanbul mayoral race in 2019, ending the Islamists’ 25-year rule in Turkey’s biggest city, he has been the focus of senior government figures’ ire. The central government suspended Imamoğlu’s charity campaigns, including cheap bread sales to the poorest.
In the latest episode, the Interior Ministry launched an investigation into Imamoğlu for “disrespecting Sultan Mehmed II’s tomb”—the resting place of the Ottoman sultan who conquered Istanbul in 1453. A probe was opened and the mayor of Istanbul was summoned to make a statement.
The nature of the offense? In 2020, Imamoğlu visited the tomb and was photographed with his hands folded behind his back.
“In my opinion,” said Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, “this [behavior] is an offense.”
“I feel so much shame on the minister’s behalf,” replied Imamoğlu.
Every day, more and more Turks are joining the ranks of the opposition. There is more to Erdoğan’s decline than power fatigue. He will find it very difficult to unite a majority of Turks around the flag and mosque in the presidential elections of 2023.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News, and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is also a founder of, and associate editor at, the Ankara-based think tank Sigma.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.