Turkey Opposition Finds a Voice as Erdogan Takes Eye Off Economy
With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a campaign to expand his own power, Turkey’s opposition parties are appealing to voters by attacking what they see as the government’s main weakness: the economy.
That’s a reversal for the ruling AK Party, which won an unbroken string of electoral victories since 2002 largely on the strength of its economic record. But with unemployment at the highest in five years, the currency plumbing record lows and growth stalling, opponents are finding traction in promises of economic renewal.
The general elections on June 7 will be the first for the AK Party under any leader other than Erdogan, who moved last year to the presidency, a traditionally ceremonial and non-partisan post. His focus since then on political transformation — he’s seeking support for a switch to a presidential from a parliamentary system — has left a void in the economic campaign that the opposition is filling.
“For the first time, AK Party finds itself following the economic agenda rather than setting it,” said Cagdas Sirin, an economics professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “I don’t know whether this will be reflected at the ballot box, but the number one issue for voters is the economy.”
From the minimum wage to taxes, opposition parties are making promises to win over voters whose faith in the economy is sagging. Rather than promoting their own platform, government spokesmen have resorted to attacking the rival plans. Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan warned they would turn the country into Greece.
The main opposition Republic People’s Party promised to increase the monthly minimum wage by 50 percent to 1,500 liras ($565). It also dangled cheaper diesel fuel for farmers and affordable housing before voters. The pro-Kurdish HDP countered with a minimum wage of 1,800 liras.
“We’re talking about how a new Turkey will be formed with a new constitution and a presidential system,” Erdogan said to supporters at a rally in Mardin on May 4. “The opposition has no such problem: they’ve got the minimum wage up for auction.”
For Huseyin Yildiz, a former AK Party voter who says business selling watermelons at a market in Ankara is slow, that’s not such a bad thing.
“I hope they can keep their promises,” he said of the opposition. “That means more money for everyone. Who doesn’t want that?”
Fulfilling opposition pledges would bring fiscal discipline to an end, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said in a televised interview on May 5. Babacan, who’s been in charge of the economy for much of the past decade, said Turkey could face financial woes similar to those of Greece if the opposition were allowed to run it.
Such claims amount to fear-mongering from a party whose economic vision has run out of steam, according to Selin Sayek Boke, the CHP’s economy chief, an ex-IMF economist with a doctorate from Duke University.
“It’s not a question of fiscal discipline,” she said in an interview in Ankara on April 29. “We have a plan to make better use of existing resources without compromising fiscal discipline. That’s why the AKP is getting worried.”
Meanwhile, the AKP’s promise of economic stability is becoming less attractive as the boom years subside and consumer confidence plummets to levels last seen in the global financial crisis in 2009.
“Turkey has been in an economic crisis since 2008,” said Erhan Usta, a state planning agency veteran who’s running for parliament for the nationalist MHP party. Reforms are needed to boost production of high-value goods and lift nearly 23 million people out of poverty, he said. Until he resigned Feb. 11 to run for office, Usta was one of the top officials in charge of implementing macroeconomic policies.
Other influential economic figures have also joined the opposition, including Durmus Yilmaz, the former central bank governor who stabilized inflation at single digits following years of hyperinflation, and Kemal Dervis, the architect of economic reforms made a decade ago.
While the ruling party tops the polls, whether it can retain a parliamentary majority is uncertain. Most surveys show combined support for the CHP and nationalist opposition MHP at over 40 percent, close to the AKP’s expected result. If that holds and the pro-Kurdish party HDP passes the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, no party may win enough seats to form a government alone.
For the first time in more than a decade, investors may not see that as such a bad thing, according to Abbas Ameli-Renani, global emerging-market strategist at Amundi in London.
“If AKP fails to win a majority and is forced into a coalition with other parties, the markets’ reaction is unlikely to be negative for a sustained period,” he said by e-mail. “After 13 years of absolute majorities for the AKP, a weaker vote of confidence by the electorate may be exactly what is needed to refocus the party’s attention on the economic reform agenda that defined its earlier years in power.”