ISTANBUL - Turkey's unemployment rate has hit a near-10-year high, bringing more bad economic news for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of critical local elections.
According to figures released Friday, Turkey’s jobless rate surged to 13.5 percent, the highest since 2010. The number of unemployed is a record 4.3 million.
The unemployment figures are just the latest economic bad news with soaring inflation and the country in recession.
Erdogan is leading his AK Party campaign to maintain control of most of Turkey’s cities. However, with a slew of bad economic news, the March 31 polls are now being hotly contested.
With the passing of constitutional reforms, that centralized power in the hands of the presidency in 2017, the control of Turkey’s main cities is one of the few remaining sources of political power and patronage outside Erdogan’s control.
Erdogan is campaigning hard, seeking to draw heavily on his own popularity. In the past, the Turkish president used to make economic prosperity the centerpiece of his campaign strategy. Seventeen years of nearly unbroken growth is widely acknowledged as a critical factor for his political success.
However, Erdogan is largely sidestepping the economy, angrily dismissing what he characterizes as calls for assistance. “Don’t expect anything from us. We gave all that we could. Moreover, don’t provoke this rally,” Erdogan reprimanded an audience demanding jobs in the provincial city of Sivas.
Instead, the Turkish president is looking to highlight other achievements. Tuesday, Erdogan opened a new urban rail link in Istanbul, promising crowds an end to the city’s chronic traffic problems.
“This line will by itself carry the same number of passengers who are transported with 100,000 vehicles,” he declared to cheering supporters.“ Istanbul’s 10 districts will have the opportunity to use this line. It will importantly relieve the Istanbul traffic,” he added.
Istanbul is Erdogan’s home, and his political powerbase, ever since he won the mayorship back in 1994, which was the springboard to him going on to dominate Turkish politics.
Erdogan has never lost an election, a success he uses to silence critics who accuse him of authoritarianism. “Winning the elections constitute the unique sole source of legitimacy for this regime. So therefore it's very important for the regime, “said political scientist Cengiz Aktar.
“But this (election) is definitely a challenge (to Erdogan)” he added. “Turkey is in stagflation, it’s a recession with inflation and this is why the regime is so nervous.”
Advertisements for Erdogan's AK Party saturate the airwaves, listing its achievements. With mainstream media in the iron grip of Erdogan’s supporters, watching TV, it is easy to forget that other parties are contesting the polls.
According to official Turkish figures, during the campaign, the state broadcaster TRT, devoted 53 hours to the ruling AKP in contrast to seven hours for other parties. The pro-Kurdish HDP, Turkey’s second main opposition, received only two minutes.
However, according to opinion polls, the economic discontent is the main issue of concern with voters, with unemployment second. The same poll points to the main opposition CHP securing many of Turkey’s cities, including the capital, Ankara. While Istanbul is the economic powerhouse of the country, the AKP lead has been whittled down to within the margin of error.
Istanbul CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, a local Istanbul suburban mayor, was little known. However, his touring food market places across the city focusing on rising discontent over inflation, appears to striking chord among many.
“I don’t understand the prices. One day you come, there is this price and the next day another price,” said an exasperated trader.
“Believe me, I can’t understand how these prices come about,” he added. “The sales are affected. The prices are all shot to pieces. How come it doesn’t affect us. Prices are all in pieces.”
Small-time traders traditionally are a vital constituent of support of the ruling AKP. However, in the market place, there are still many people who remain loyal to Erdogan.
“I haven’t personally been affected that much (by inflation) but I am of course concerned about the effect of it on other people and this makes me sad. Of course, I want the prices to be lower,” said a woman wearing a religious headscarf. “But the president is working to reduce prices, and, God willing, he will continue to succeed.”
Turkey’s large conservative, religious population is the foundation of Erdogan’s electoral support. Until now they have remained mostly loyal.
Under Erdogan’s rule as prime minister and now president, he introduced many reforms, lifting restrictions under Turkey’s secular constitution, preventing head-scarved women from going to university and working for the state. A dominant, prosperous religious middle class also flourished under his rule.
The AKP, with its deep financial pockets and the resources of the Turkish State at its disposal along with control of mainstream media, still has considerable advantages over its opponents. However analysts point out, Erdogan’s AKP is facing growing anger in the country over rising prices and unemployment.