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[Opinion] How poverty came to Turkey

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Türkmen Terzi

Turkey was never a country in which poverty came to mind.

However, the financial desperation of the Turkish public was clearly visible when 5,217 people, of whom 1,143 were university graduates, applied for nine janitorial jobs advertised in the eastern city of Adıyaman last week.

The other heartbreaking story was that of a young Kurdish couple who could not find anything to eat for five days and then committed suicide after leaving their 18-month-old daughter with their neighbor in İstanbul.

What has really caused this poverty in Turkey, a country that used to have a proud record of self-sufficiency in agriculture and food?

The wasteful spending of the Turkish government, the high level of corruption, the failing rule of law and political crises with major Western countries are some of the main factors for the poor performance of the Turkish economy.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have ruled the country since 2003.

While the Turkish economy enjoyed record-high growth rates during the late 2000s under Erdoğan, he started displaying autocratic tendencies from 2011 onwards.

A pivotal corruption scandal involving Erdoğan’s inner circle came to light in December 2013 and was subsequently suppressed by the AKP government.

Four Turkish ministers implicated in the corruption scandal resigned, but Erdoğan and his family members who were implicated have never appeared in court despite leaked tapes revealing that that Erdoğan instructed his son, Bilal, to get rid of millions of dollars from their private home in the midst of the corruption investigation.

Thanks to the AKP’s parliamentary majority, Erdoğan managed to control the judiciary by creating special criminal courts headed by a single judge. These judges then jailed all the police and prosecutors who had conducted the 2013 corruption investigations.

A July 2016 coup attempt was another excuse for the Erdoğan government to fire thousands of judges and prosecutors.

Erdoğan’s judicial purge has brought all major corruption investigations to a halt, and since then the AKP has been blocking all judicial mechanisms to investigate the government’s wasteful expenditures.

Erdoğan’s AKP took advantage of the US Federal Reserve’s low interest rates, and Turkish banks took note and binged on cheap dollar loans in the early 2000s. As the Turkish lira was strong during Erdoğan’s early years, many Turkish companies expanded their business with the foreign loans. Erdoğan ideologically opposes high interest rates and forced the Turkish Central Bank to keep interest rates low for many years to keep the Turkish lira strong.

But low interest rates couldn’t keep inflation down.

As a result many top Turkish companies have gone bankrupt in recent years because they couldn’t pay back the loans as a result of a weaker lira against the dollar.

Unemployment also increased and the cost of living soared.

According to the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, more than 25,000 Turkish companies closed down in 2018 and 2019 alone.

Atlas Global Airlines, the 40-year-old BETA shoe company, Turkey’s leading dairy group Yörsan, cosmetics retailer Tekin Acar, the 100-year-old Ince Leather, Bora Jet and luxury bus operator Ulusoy are some of the top companies that have gone under in recent years.

Turkish economic growth has slowed sharply since the third quarter of 2018 after the political crises between Washington and Ankara over the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was jailed by a Turkish court, and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Brunson was released after former US President Donald Trump’s intervention in October 2018, but Turkey, a NATO member, has not backed away from purchasing the S-400 missiles.

The crises with Washington came at a huge price for Ankara as the Turkish lira has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the dollar since 2018.

While Turkey’s gross external debt stock exceeded $400 billion and the youth jobless rate topped 25 percent, the Turkish government continued to misspend billions of lira and corruption has become endemic.

İstanbul’s new Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said on the İstanbul city website that before his time in office, Erdoğan’s AKP had spent $13 million in three years’ time.

While millions of Turks face poverty, billions of dollars have been spent on public-private partnership projects (PPP) such as the Osmangazi Bridge, the Eurasia tunnel, the third Bosporus bridge, Istanbul Airport and the Ankara Train Station. The Osmangazi Bridge alone has cost more than $3 billion since its opening as the bridge did not meet vehicle crossing targets.

Turkey also faces food security issues as the government imports basic food items at the expense of local farmers.

Turkey used to be a major exporter of various of food items but currently imports even basic food items from more than 100 countries such as eggs from Britain, meat from Serbia, watermelon from Iran, spinach from Italy and lettuce from Spain as well as feed for livestock from Europe.

A G-20 country, Turkey enjoyed export-led growth during Erdogan’s early rule, and Turkey became a popular tourist destination, hosting more than 40 million tourists a year, but Erdoğan’s credit-fueled growth model has not worked since 2018.

Financial hardship has triggered many suicides in the country.

The Turkish public was shocked to hear four brothers committed suicide in Istanbul over their financial woes. The heartbreaking incident followed another family’s suicide in Antalya in November 2019. The couple took their own lives along with those of their 5 and 9-year-old children as they couldn’t cope with their poor financial situation.

The coronavirus has worsened the economic situation in the country.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Turkey, the atmosphere for musicians in the country has become as difficult as in the rest of the world. Many musicians make limited stage appearances and studio recordings to survive. There are more than 1 million musicians in Turkey, and many of them work without insurance so they are unable to claim state benefits.

Contrary to European countries’ coronavirus economic relief packages, Erdoğan’s AKP demands support from the Turkish public through various donation channels.

Finally, the desperate AKP drafted a regulation requiring that jewelers deposit 500 grams of gold with state-owned banks as “security.”

Turkish opposition leaders claim that the Erdoğan government is preparing to take over 10 percent of Turkish citizens’ assets.

The Turkish electorate brought Erdoğan to power as a financial rescuer after a dire economic crisis in 2001 swept away many Turkish politicians, but now the Turkish people face much deeper challenges as the country has lost its democracy. Turkey is now rated “not free” by Freedom House, and the poor Turks have been taken hostage by the powerful Erdoğan.

Not COVID-19 but the corrupt rule of Erdoğan and his cronies is the cause of the poverty in Turkey.

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