‘Shop on a full stomach’: Turkey is struggling with poverty and protests

Rather than address protesters' concerns, Erdogan wants to exploit them
Riot police officers move to detain students during a protest, in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Students and faculty members at Bogazici University have been staging demonstrations in protest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Jan. 1 appointment of an academic with links to his ruling party, as rector.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Contrary to much recent commentary, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a big fan of the protests that have been shaking Istanbul for the past five weeks.

The standoff began in the first days of the year, following his decision to appoint a non-academic and acolyte of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the new rector of Turkey’s top public university, Bogazici. This sparked on-campus protests calling for the new rector’s resignation and a university system free of government control.

Authorities cracked down hard, wielding batons, spraying teargas and arresting dozens of protesting students, which in turn encouraged more students to protest, joined by faculty. The Bogazici protests soon swelled in size and scope to move beyond Istanbul and encompass broader issues such as high unemployment and widespread dissatisfaction among Turkish youth.

The crackdown has continued apace, with dozens more arrested last weekend. But the demonstrators have held their ground. Some news outlets have hailed these protests as the political emergence of Turkey’s generation Z, which has known only Mr Erdogan as its leader and is now saying it has had enough.

epa08988382 Members of the left-wing nationalist Turkish Youth Union (TGB) shout slogans during a protest against the students of the Bogazici University, in front of the Istanbul University in Istanbul, Turkey, 05 February 2021. Turkish President Erdogan appointed a controversial party member as the new rector of the university. Teachers and students at the school condemned the appointment as an undemocratic move, media reported. Bogazici University, overlooking the Bosphorus, was founded in 1863, has more than 15,000 students and six campuses on the European side of Istanbul.  EPA/SEDAT SUNA

Why might all of this please the Turkish president? For starters, these demonstrations pull eyeballs away from the most urgent issue in the country today, which is how its deeply troubled economy is driving more people into poverty.

The government has subtly acknowledged the depth of this problem with a new campaign to help Turkish citizens survive on next to nothing. On Sunday, a programme on state-run television network TRT advised people not to waste food and explained that eggs could be eaten after their expiration date.

The day before, the front page of Takvim, a newspaper closely linked to AKP, presented a grim walk-through on wielding one's will power to save money while grocery shopping. "Shop on a full stomach." "Avoid nice smells." "Don't touch the products – the feeling of ownership will force you to buy it."

The reality is that Mr Erdogan’s government is failing to find ways to provide for its people. “They’re expecting Turks to live in abject poverty and this is the guidebook to survival,” analyst Can Okar tweeted.

In its 20-year history, the AKP has never lost a national vote. Though the next election is more than two years away, the current economy could end that winning streak: two recent polls show backing for the government’s electoral alliance has fallen significantly below support for the opposition alliance.

These numbers point to another reason Mr Erdogan appreciates the protests. They present the perfect opportunity to do what he does best: divide and conquer. And indeed he and his allies have begun to polarise the country further and rally his main vote banks, nationalists and religious conservatives.

In a tweet Twitter soon deleted, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, AKP’s parliamentary partner, described the demonstrators as “snakes whose heads need to be crushed”. To put a scare into the protesters and help rally the nationalists, Mr Bahceli’s pal Alaattin Cakici, a convicted murderer, urged the Erdogan-appointed rector not to resign.

There has also been significant outreach to Turkey’s conservative Islamist crowds, who are often in opposition to so-called "Western values". Seeing a pro-LGBT symbol among the protesters, the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, blamed “LGBT perverts” for the unrest, an accusation that has since been repeated a number of times.

“We don’t accept these people as the youth of our country,” said Mr Erdogan, who described the protesters as “terrorists”.

Students of the Bogazici University hold an LGBT flag as they stage a protest in support of their detained friends in front of a courthouse in Istanbul, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced as "terrorists" university students who have protesting the appointment of a government loyalist to head Istanbul's most prestigious Bogazici University and vowed to crackdown on the demonstrations.(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
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These protests mark the political emergence of Turkey's generation Z

This demonising is straight out of the populist playbook. Longtime Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez often denounced his foes as homosexual, Zionist, part of the bourgeoisie or backed by Americans. The objective, of course, is to pit a virtuous and supposedly homogenous group, “the people”, against a grab-bag of elites and problematic “others”.

Mr Erdogan has often railed against the meddling of Jewish-American philanthropist George Soros in reference to the mid-2013 Gezi Park protests. He did it again on Friday, saying that Ayse Bugra, the wife of Osman Kavala, a jailed philanthropist who founded the Turkish chapter of Mr Soros's foundation, was “among the provocateurs”. Ms Bugra is a professor at Bogazici.

Mr Erdogan has gone even further to exploit the protests. Last week, he issued a decree creating two new departments at Bogazici, law and communications, in a suspected attempt to increase the number of loyalists among the faculty.

We must be careful not to downplay the value of protests in pushing back against creeping authoritarianism or governmental overreach in Turkey and elsewhere, from Lebanon to Myanmar. Demonstrators have, in this century, forced the ouster of many leaders and persuaded countless governments to reform.

But Turkey has seen this film before and it does not have a happy ending. Apart from showing Mr Erdogan’s critics that they are not alone, the primary outcome of the Gezi Park demonstrations was to enable Turkish parliament to pass a security law in 2015 that greatly empowered police to silence protests violently and brutally. Some argue that Gezi Park spurred many to find their political voice and shaped the results of the subsequent 2015 national election, but that is all but impossible to know for sure.

Meanwhile, that new security law is why today’s protests are a fraction of the size of Gezi Park and unlikely to have a lasting effect. One thing in the protesters’ favour is that they are backed by majority opinion; a new survey from MetroPoll showed that 75 per cent of Turks polled preferred universities independent from politics.

But Turkish authorities likely will continue with the current level of crackdown for another week or two, until they go all-in and end the protests entirely, as they did in Gezi Park. Until then, the demonstrations are for the government mainly a welcome distraction from harsh economic reality and a chance for Mr Erdogan and his allies to regain some political ground – at least until their bill comes due in 2023, when Turkey again goes to the polls.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National

David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National