One phrase has dominated Turkey’s streets, opposition statements and social media in recent days: “Where’s the $128 billion?”
The question relates to the amount taken from central bank reserves over two years to prop up the ailing Turkish lira, when the economy was under the stewardship of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, former finance minister Berat Albayrak.
The depletion of foreign currency reserves raised its head after the shock resignation of Mr Albayrak in November and the introduction of a new economic team at the ministry and central bank.
The biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), began hanging banners asking the question from its buildings around the country last week, prompting frantic efforts by government-appointed governors to remove them.
As teams of police were sent in, a range of reasons for hauling them down, from breaching Covid-19 restrictions to insulting public officials to provoking public hatred.
In one district of Istanbul, a placard with just the number “128” was carried off, as was a banner outside a CHP branch in the southern coastal city of Antalya. The banner carried a QR code and the message: “One question in the minds of 83 million citizens, scan the code to see the question.” Phone-wielding passers-by were directed to the question of the missing $128 billion. That, too, was taken down by police.
At least one banner escaped the clutches of the police: a CHP youth branch in Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, attached theirs to helium-filled balloons.
When officers arrived at the weekend, the protest message was sent sailing skywards. "The poster we put up was supposed to be confiscated but it flew away, like the $128 billion," branch head Burak Inanir told the Cumhuriyet newspaper.
The phrase was quickly picked up on social media and the hashtag “128 milyar dolar nerede?” peaked on Turkish Twitter. In response to apparent official action against using “128,” users soon began writing mathematic equations to reflect the figure, such as 2 to the power of 7.
The CHP set up a parody shopping website inviting users to make “purchases” ranging from a litre of milk or a kilo of lamb chops to pricier items such as the New York Yankees baseball team, an F-35 stealth fighter or the Osmangazi suspension bridge to illustrate the scale of the controversy.
In the central Anatolian province of Kastamonu, law enforcement is on the lookout for a young Ramadan drummer – common on Turkish streets during the holy month as they call people to their pre-dawn breakfast.
A video circulated online shows the man crying out “Ramadan has come to my city, it should be split communally", before adding, "We never tire of asking, ‘Where is the $128 billion?’”
Action was taken against one man for breaching curfew, but he denied being the drummer, saying he merely shared the video online. “I’m not the drummer and the $128 billion isn’t in the drum. So where is it?” he tweeted.
One opposition MP even dredged up a photograph from a 2014 inaugural football match featuring Mr Erdogan and Mr Albayrak. With their backs to the camera, their shirt numbers 12 and 8 are clearly on display.
Lisel Hintz, author of Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey, said economic mismanagement had infuriated citizens, who had to resort to "small, creative acts of resistance" because of the government's control of the media.
"An apartment resident hanging a banner with the number 128 from a balcony as one might a flag, or a drummer adding '128 milyar dolar nerede?' to provide a very different type of Ramadan wake-up call represent individual acts of creative subversion," she told The National.
“They engage traditional practices but insert clever critique, taking back the power the [ruling party] has concentrated and exposing the corruption absent from the mainstream media.”
In the 18 months to Mr Albayrak quitting, the lira fell by 37 per cent against the dollar. Foreign reserves stood at less than $10bn earlier this month, Reuters news agency reported, citing central bank figures. Such levels would leave Turkey vulnerable to a crisis.
Naci Agbal, appointed central bank governor in November, was sacked last month amid claims he wanted to investigate the drop in reserve levels.
Mr Erdogan described the opposition’s claims as “wrong from head to toe” when he addressed ruling party MPs on Wednesday, saying the government was fighting “the triangle of evil of interest rates-exchange rates-inflation”.
He said about $165bn from central bank “sources” had been used to support the economy in 2019 and 2020, and added that adding that such action could be repeated in the future.