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Turkey’s discount retailers face backlash after being targeted by Erdoğan ally for price increases

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Turkey’s discount retailers have faced a backlash from customers after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s far-right ally, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, accused them of helping to stoke inflation by means of steep price increases and affiliation with terrorism.

Consumers went so far as to start boycotting the chains, in particular BİM Birleşik Mağazalar AŞ, the country’s largest discount retailer, after they were pointed out as targets by Bahçeli.

Erdoğan claims frequently that such chains had been increasing prices while costs remain stable in a move that he said was fueling the fastest pace of inflation in more than two decades.

Turkey’s inflation, which has risen steadily since reaching a low of 16.6 percent in May 2021, was 84.39 percent in November, according to official data.

Bahçeli also accused discount chains of helping to stoke inflation, also saying during his party’s group meeting in late November that the links between chains that “constantly raise prices” and FETÖ, a derogatory term used by the Turkish government to refer to the faith-based Gülen movement as a terrorist organization, should be investigated.

The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding a failed coup on July 15, 2016 and labels it a “terrorist organization,” although the movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

Galip Aykaç, chief operating officer of BİM, replied to the claims, saying discount retailers were the cornerstones of Turkey and that the people behind the allegations weren’t strong enough to move them.

His remarks sparked a harsh statement by MHP Vice Chairman Semih Yalçın, who on Dec. 1 said in a series of tweets that they were now “fierce enemies” of chains that increase the price of basic food products every week.

Yalçın also accused Aykaç of terrorist links and claimed that discount retailers were part of a plot to overthrow Erdoğan and his government by inciting people to chaos.

After mafia leader Kürşad Yılmaz, known for being close to Bahçeli, threatened to kill Aytaç, the COO of BİM quit as chairman and a board member of the Food Retailers Association and apologized to Bahçeli for his statements, local media reported on Sunday.

Following the developments, MHP group deputy chairman Erkan Akçay on Sunday suggested temporarily closing discount chains as punishment for continuing to increase prices or even shutting them down completely and banning the company’s owners from operating in the same sector again, since imposing fines on them wasn’t enough.

Akçay was referring to a fine of some TL 2.6 billion ($139.5 million) in total that was imposed by Turkey’s Competition Authority on retail giants Migros, Carrefour, BİM, ŞOK and A101 and supplier Savola Gıda last year, as a result of investigations launched in March 2019 to determine if they were engaged in the unfair competition.

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a human rights advocate and deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on Monday went to a BİM store in Ankara and recorded his shopping experience, saying sarcastically in a tweet that he was there to “examine the chocolates that are [linked to] terrorists.”

Erdoğan has frequently blamed grocery chains for increasing prices without a valid reason, while the pro-government media has portrayed them as actors in a battle to overthrow the president.

He recently said the government may discuss steps to penalize grocers in addition to fines for overcharging.

Up for re-election in June 2023, Erdoğan has championed an economic model that prioritizes exports, production and employment at the expense of price stability and the currency, pressuring the central bank to lower its benchmark interest rate into single digits, a goal it met last week by bringing the key rate to 9 percent.

A plunge in the lira, which lost 44 percent of its value against the dollar last year and another 29 percent since the beginning of 2022, because of his unconventional policies is among the reasons for high inflation.

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