It’s official. Thanks to persistent financial turmoil, Turkey’s lira just logged its worst year since the ruling AKP came to power two decades ago, shedding 44 per cent of its value in 2021 to become the worst-performing currency in emerging markets.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan temporarily reversed the decline last month when he unveiled an economic rescue plan focused on exports and credit, sharply increased the minimum wage and urged citizens to keep their savings in lira. “The Turkish lira, our money, that is what we will go forward with,” he said last week. “Not with this foreign currency or that foreign currency.”
Yet, the Turkish economy finds itself in its worst state in 20 years. The lira fell as low as 18.4 to the dollar last month, when inflation hit a 20-year peak of 36.1 per cent, according to government data. Some observers doubt this latter figure. Over the past year, the price of flour leapt 86 per cent and pasta 114 per cent, as countless Turks struggled to pay their bills and put food on the table.
The last time the lira was this weak and inflation this high was in 2001, when protesters called for the coalition government to step down and the International Monetary Fund had to step in to stem the crisis. That turmoil led to the surprise electoral victory of the newly founded AKP in late 2002, after which Turkey embarked on more than a decade of steady economic expansion.
History may soon repeat itself, as crucial presidential and parliamentary elections loom next year and the latest polls put the AKP and its parliamentary partner, the nationalist MHP, several points behind the opposition alliance of the CHP and IYI parties.
In a survey published last week by leading pollster MetroPoll, Mr Erdogan placed fourth among possible presidential candidates. The Turkish leader, who will mark 19 years in power in March, received an approval rating of less than 38 per cent, behind IYI Party leader Meral Aksener and Istanbul’s charismatic mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, of the CHP.
The big surprise may have been the CHP’s Mansur Yavas. Not only did the Ankara mayor top the poll by a sizable margin – receiving 60 per cent support compared to 50 per cent for second-place Mr Imamoglu – but he was viewed negatively by less than one quarter of those polled, compared respectively to 53 and 55 per cent for Ms Aksener and Mr Erdogan.
So who is Mr Yavas, and how has he emerged as Turkey’s most popular politician? For starters, he had a working-class upbringing and has remained close to his roots. Born and raised in Beypazari, a small city 100 kilometres west of the capital Ankara, that’s also where he first emerged as a political force, becoming mayor in 1999.
He gained some public sympathy in 2014, when he lost the Ankara mayoral vote by a single percentage point in a result referred to the European Court of Human Rights amid accusations of fraud. Previously aligned with the MHP, he appeals to nationalists as well as the Kemalists who favour the CHP, the party of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. When he won the Ankara mayor’s seat in March 2019, he joined friends in celebratory shouts of “Allahu Akbar", highlighting his conservative credentials as well.
His performance in office has been widely praised, notably for his anti-corruption drive. To boost transparency, Mr Yavas has live-streamed the city’s public tender decisions, including a steel pipes purchase reportedly viewed by 400,000 people. He also sold off dozens of expensive cars bought by the previous administration run by the AKP’s Melih Gokcek.
His robust pandemic response, which included using social media to raise hundreds of millions of lira for increased social assistance, has also drawn favourable reviews. Despite being in his mid-60s, he has made in-roads with younger voters, like hosting a video chat on the streaming platform Twitch that broke viewership records in Turkey. This may be crucial as Turkish citizens born after 1980 represent about one third of all voters.
Mr Yavas has also embraced an eco-friendly agenda, laying new bike lanes, electrifying public transport and reducing demand on the city’s overtaxed water system. Last week, he announced a new round of natural gas subsidies to all households, days after the government raised fuel prices.
Turkey’s lira and inflationary troubles look set to continue in the coming months. Goldman Sachs expects inflation to tick above 40 per cent, while JP Morgan foresees a peak of 55 per cent in May. Such international observers may have come to doubt the acumen of those overseeing the Turkish economy. Asked last month about the latest economic data, Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati said on national TV: “Look into my eyes. What do you see?” If viewers didn’t know any better, they might think he was suggesting mass hypnosis.
Despite these favourable political winds, the CHP has yet to choose its presidential candidate. Mr Imamoglu and fellow party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu have both signalled their interest in running, and the former seems to have significant domestic and international support. Turkey’s Interior Ministry last month launched investigations into hundreds of Istanbul officials for possible terrorist links, which could tarnish the city’s mayor, depending on the results.
Much time remains before the big vote, currently scheduled for June 2023. Mr Yavas’s surname means “slow” in Turkish, and the Ankara mayor is likely to remind voters of the common Turkish phrase, “Yavas, yavas”. It’s a reminder that developments often happen gradually, that understanding and achievement tend to arrive not in a flash, but only in good time.