Thousands of people took to the streets of cities across Turkey in recent days to protest against electricity prices that shot up by as much as 125 per cent at the start of the year.
Under the nationwide changes, electricity companies boosted prices by 50 per cent for low-level users, rising to 125 per cent for large-scale business consumers.
In the southern city of Mardin, police used tear gas and arrested several protesters on Sunday after the crowd called for the resignation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and chanted against the region’s electricity supplier.
“These electricity price increases are the latest blow for us after inflation that has left us unable to feed ourselves properly,” said Rifat Gencay, a jobless 39-year-old from Istanbul’s Atasehir neighbourhood.
“Some people are being forced to choose between buying food or paying their gas and electricity bills, they don’t have enough money for both.”
Housewife Esra Yuksel, 45, said her family had lowered the heating and wore extra clothing at home to keep bills down. “I still don’t know if we will be able to pay the bills next month,” she said.
Turkey’s economic crisis led to the official rate of inflation hitting nearly 49 per cent in January, up from 36 per cent the previous month.
Independent economists, however, put the annual rate at more than 115 per cent, a figure many shoppers facing daily price rises believe to be more accurate.
Many increases are caused by the fall of the Turkish lira, which lost 44 per cent of its value against the dollar last year in Turkey’s import-reliant economy. However, the government’s refusal to raise interest rates – the usual method of tackling inflation – has also fuelled the dilemma.
Crowds that gathered at the weekend called for the energy price increases – natural gas also went up 25 per cent – to be reversed and for the renationalisation of Turkey’s jigsaw of power companies.
“We don’t want to pay the price for the economic and political instability in our country,” protesters in the western city of Mugla said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) applied to the courts for the increases to be suspended.
Cemil Kocatepe, chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of Electrical Engineers, described the increase as one that “shocks us all” and said electricity customers were “being robbed”.
He blamed privatisation for creating a system that “produces and will continue to produce [price] increases”.
“The most important reason for today’s hikes is the energy, production and sales system established by the AKP,” Mr Kocatepe said, referring to Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. “In the coming months, we are afraid that this system will bring a raise again.”
Businesses that are shouldering the higher price increase are also calling for changes and say they could be forced to close.
Shopkeepers in Istanbul have taken to posting their monthly electricity bills in their windows as a display of their desperate situation.
“A special tariff should be applied to tradesmen,” said Bendevi Palandoken, chairman of the Confederation of Turkish Tradesmen and Craftsmen.
“Unfortunately, increasing the level to 210 kilowatts in the gradual tariff did not benefit our tradesmen, since our tradesmen consume at least 800 kilowatts of electricity.”
He was referring to Mr Erdogan’s announcement last week that the upper limit of the 50 per cent increase would be raised from 150 kilowatts to 210 kilowatts of monthly use.
Mr Erdogan said the new tariffs were introduced to “ensure sustainability in energy markets”. Meanwhile, his spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on Sunday promised changes to ease customers' burdens.
“A new regulation on electricity bills will come very soon. Improvements will continue,” he told broadcaster AHaber. “We will not crush our citizens with inflation.”
The tourism sector, which accounts for 13 per cent of the Turkish economy and is a valuable source of foreign currency, also said that rising power bills could damage efforts for economic recovery.
“While electricity bills in Germany are between 2 per cent and 5 per cent of restaurant turnover, it’s reached 10 per cent to 15 per cent in our country,” said Zeki Ozen, chairman of the Antalya Gastronomy Investors and Operators Association.
Many restaurants and cafes now face monthly electricity bills higher than their rent, he said. Meanwhile, cash-strapped customers are cutting down on their nights out.
Hoteliers, who run energy-guzzling air conditioners during the peak summer months, say they are being forced to raise their room prices by up to 50 per cent.
“Hotel operators can’t even imagine how much they will pay when the air conditioners are working when temperatures rise,” said Serdar Karcilioglu, chairman of the Bodrum Professional Hotel Managers’ Association.
While the weak lira seems likely to maintain Turkey’s reputation as an inexpensive summer destination for European visitors, the locals who provide hotels with custom during the off-season are likely to stay away.
“With the new prices, I think that the purchasing power of domestic tourists will decrease by 75 per cent to 80 per cent. We have to save this year with foreign tourists,” Mr Karcilioglu said.