Economic slide sends Erdogan support to all-time low

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Hediye Bas accuses the dams, highways and the network of tunnels crossing the forested valley of Ikizdere in northeastern Turkey of choking the water supply and delaying his harvests. Now, work on a planned career is proving a breaking point and eroding his support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Bas and other villagers in the ancestral province of Erdogan, Rize, are trying to stop the excavation of 20 million tonnes of stone for a new port 40 km away on the Black Sea coast.

Dynamite has previously blown up chunks of the mountain for an access road, briefly diverting the stream where Bas’s family fish for unnatural turquoise. For the quarry to function, up to 1m of trees will be felled and explosives will make nearby vegetable gardens toxic, while biodiversity in an adjacent protected area will be at risk, a local conservation group has warned.

Erdogan “probably thought that we would support any project he undertakes here because he wins almost all of our votes.” But I won’t vote for him anymore, ”Bas said. “No one in the village can find work in these projects, they just rob us of the valley we rely on for our income. ”

The rare demonstration in one of the president’s strongholds is emblematic of a wider discontent with his economic management which, according to polls, affects support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in across the country. Inflation has been stuck in double digits for most of the past four years and unemployment is around 14 percent.

The $ 200 million port is among the $ 325 billion in infrastructure investments planned in Turkey over the next decade. Erdogan has placed his economic hopes on the massive construction campaign, including a $ 15 billion shipping canal that will turn half of Istanbul into an island. At the groundbreaking ceremony last month, Erdogan said the projects laid the foundation for “building a great and mighty Turkey”.

Bas is less concerned with such grandiose ambitions and more worried about the cost of shopping and keeping her job at an auto parts factory after being put on leave during the coronavirus pandemic. She said she was fired as a union representative after joining the protest. “It’s very expensive here. When you go to the grocery store, there is absolutely nothing you can buy for little money, ”she said.

The relentless drive to build has sparked dissent, with critics accusing a handful of companies of profiting from the projects, imposing financial and environmental costs on the rest of the country. In Rize, they indicate that two seaports are already operating below their capacity within 70 km of the new project.

Turkish villager Hediye Bas says residents of Rize regret not opposing previous construction projects in the area © Ayla Jean Yackley / FT

“It is difficult for the government to justify the cost of megaprojects to the public when household finances are suffering and people are worried about their livelihoods and kitchen expenses,” said Can Selcuki, director of the Turkiye Raporu polling agency.

A series of opinion polls show support for the AKP at historically low levels. A June survey by Turkiye Raporu found it had fallen to 26%. Turkey’s next election is slated for 2023, but nearly 60% of those polled wanted snap polls. The agency’s May poll showed Erdogan – long Turkey’s most popular politician – lagging behind three opposition figures mentioned as presidential candidates. The “fundamental consensus” behind the crisis was widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, Selcuki said.

Erdogan dominated Turkish politics for two decades, overseeing a tripling of GDP that lifted millions out of poverty. But his dramatic consolidation of power in recent years has coincided with political volatility, including an attempted coup in 2016, aggressive foreign policy that put him at odds with Western trading partners, and economic policies. unorthodox that have deterred foreign investors and affected the country’s finances.

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In Rize, he retains hero status. Welcome to Erdogan country, one reads on a billboard on the road to the provincial capital, also known as Rize and home to Recep Tayyip Erdogan University. Huge images of the president adorn buildings in the city of 150,000, where he won 79% of the vote in the 2018 presidential election.

But even here, dissenting voices emerged. Mehmet Ali Sancaktutan, who left the AKP two years ago, said his neighbors warned him to leave his home in nearby Guneysu, where Erdogan spent part of his childhood, after being arrested by the police for complaining about the president’s management of the economy on a YouTube. interview in June.

“I thought our president, a son of Rize, would save us, but he lost touch with our problems,” Sancaktutan said. “People are miserable, worried about putting food on the table, but we only hear about construction projects.”

Saltuk Deniz, provincial chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said his party tripled its share of the vote in the last local election.

The villagers of Rize continue their vigil to protest against a planned quarry that will dig 20 million tonnes of stone for a new Black Sea port
The villagers of Rize continue their vigil to protest against a planned quarry that will dig 20 million tonnes of stone for a new Black Sea port © Ayla Jean Yackley / FT

“People are rallying around one of their own in Rize, but we are seeing that bond loosen as people’s economic problems worsen,” he said.

In Ikizdere, around 50 people filed a lawsuit to stop the quarry and entered their third month of vigil in an abandoned factory draped in Turkish flags. Many others gave up on protests after Transport Minister Adil Karaismailoglu said the port would bring jobs to the community and accused “fringe groups and outsiders” of inciting dissent.

Meanwhile, the Low tea trees planted a few years ago have not grown, and she fears nearby dams may exacerbate local climate change. Production of the region’s precious ‘mad honey’ – from bees that feed on rhododendrons containing a hallucinatory substance – has fallen sharply, while rapid development in the Black Sea provinces has been widely blamed for the landslides. deadly terrain and flooding.

“We didn’t say anything when they built the dams and the highway, but now we regret it,” Bas said. “Nature always demands her revenge. “


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