By Ayça Kiriş

Photo by Samuele Schirò on Pixabay

After 100 years of independence, the Republic of Türkiye is veering toward greater fragility. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power over 20 years ago, Türkiye was emerging as a bulwark of stability in the region. It was consolidating liberal and democratic values, improving human rights, reducing the influence of the military in politics, and making progress on the EU ascension process.[1]  However, in the last 18 years, Türkiye has been spiking on the Fragile Sates Index, threatening the potential it showed in the early 2000s, and undermining the promise of an economic boom following the financial crisis.[2] Now, instead, there has been an intensification of group grievances, a continuously shrinking civil society, a worsening human rights record and a collapse of the economy. The downward trajectory of the economy and of the state’s legitimacy now place Türkiye among the most prominent examples of democratic backsliding, and as a cautionary tale against government meddling in monetary policy. In 2014, the value of the Turkish Lira against the U.S Dollar was 2.18,[3] only to suddenly lose a third of its value over the course of a month in 2018.[4] After Erdoğan’s reelection in May 2023, the Turkish central bank finally relented and signaled the abandonment of an unorthodox monetary policy, though significant damage had already been wrought. As of June 2023, the exchange rate is 20.81 Lira to the dollar,[5] a new record low.

Türkiye’s economy is struggling. The inflation rate has reached double digits for the last 6 years, and in 2022 almost triple, at 83.45%.[6]  In March 2023, the unemployment rate was 10%,[7] while close to 1 in 3 Turks live below the poverty line.[8] In December 2022, it was announced that the official monthly minimum wage in 2023 would rise to 8,506.80 Lira.[9] But this is not a living wage. In January, research showed that the starvation line in Türkiye was 8,782 Lira, and the poverty line 30,379 Lira.[10] Currently, Türkiye also has the highest rate of youth not in employment, education or training (NEET) among OECD countries.[11] In March 2023, Türkiye’s S&P sovereign credit rating was downgraded from stable to negative.

Türkiye’s economic decline did not occur overnight, nor is the diminishing value of the Turkish Lira in 2022 a complete surprise. The deterioration of economic trends can be traced back to 2011, slowly building to an economic crisis in 2018 and descending into a fully-fledged depression in 2020, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for the collapse of the Turkish Lira are many, but one of the prominent ones is the unconventional policy of keeping interest rates low despite skyrocketing inflation rates.[12] Considering Türkiye’s chronic account deficit problem, the stated goal behind the policy was to guarantee a steady surplus of foreign trade volume with the help of an undervalued currency.[13]  However, this policy fell short of improving Türkiye’s current account deficit, as exports stayed low, and the volume of imports actually increased. Economic actors, apprehensive of Ankara’s economic policies, stockpiled to shelter themselves from increasing prices.[14] And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine subsequently hit the Turkish economy at the worst possible time, affecting global supply chains while increasing the price of energy and other commodities that Türkiye imports in large quantities.[15] Russia ranked 2nd in Türkiye’s imports and 10th in its export in 2021, making it an essential trade partner.[16] Likewise, Türkiye’s imports from Ukraine reached $4.5 billion in 2021, while its exports surged to $2.9 billion; these plummeted to almost zero in 2022 following the invasion.[17] In light of the rapid increase in poverty, dwindling prospects and absence of hope for the future, many Turkish youth, especially the most educated, have begun to leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad.[18]

In stark contrast to the domestic challenges President Erdoğan has been facing, his aspiration to position Türkiye as a regional power and strengthen its standing on the international stage has been focused and sustained. Military engagement in countries such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria and a strong presence in Somalia, coupled with the supply of drones to Ethiopia, are only a few examples of President Erdoğan’s determination to expand Türkiye’s footprint and influence globally.[19] To that end, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 provided him with the opportunity to enhance Türkiye’s international stance. President Erdoğan was keen to position Türkiye as the peace-broker, and in the early months of the invasion, rounds of negotiations took place in Istanbul and Antalya.[20] Even as the Russian invasion of Ukraine progressed, Türkiye maintained its neutral stance and steadfastly withstood Western pressure to impose sanctions on Russia.[21] In July 2022, Ankara helped the UN reach an agreement with Russia and Ukraine to allow grain shipments from Ukrainian ports, mitigating the impact of the global food crisis;[22] Türkiye’s role as the mediator granted it a degree of freedom in refraining from siding with either Ukraine or Russia. Last but not least, Türkiye wielded influence within NATO by demanding the extradition of Kurdish rebels in exchange for its blessing on Sweden and Finland’s membership bids.[23]

Throughout 2022, Türkiye’s already worrying Human Rights record continued to be a concern, with its corresponding FSI score remaining high at 8.0 points in the 2023 Index. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly had already been sharply eroded under the AKP’s rule. In October, in the run-up to the 2023 general elections, a law was enacted to criminalize the dissemination of false information, essentially granting additional powers to authorities to censor independent journalists and stifle critics.[24] [25] Türkiye’s withdrawal in 2021 from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, worsened already high femicide rates and women’s rights overall. In 2021, 280 women were killed by men, and 217 women were found dead under suspicious circumstances.[26] Comparatively, femicide rates increased significantly in 2022, with 334 women killed by men and 245 found dead under suspicious circumstances.[27] According to the We Will Stop Femicides Platform’s data, “the only year in which femicides decreased was 2011, the year the Istanbul Convention was signed.”[28] Despite the clear evidence that if implemented properly, the Istanbul Convention saves lives, there has been limited to no progress in overturning the withdrawal from the Convention in 2022. Women’s groups and opposition political parties have been voicing their concerns about the withdrawal ever since it came into effect, and in July, they brought the issue to the supreme court of appeals. However, the latter ruled that the withdrawal by presidential decree had not been unlawful.[29]

In this context, the general elections of 2023 were intensely polarized, eventually leading to violent clashes, including reports of AKP supporters attacking an opposition rally in Erzurum.[30] The election days themselves were characterized by manipulation, violence, and allegations of fraud, with several reported incidents of voting station officials being attacked by pro-government groups across the country.[31] The election was close; Erdoğan won the runoff with 52.18% of the vote[32] and AKP lost seats in parliament. However, the composition of the new majority is now more reactionary than before, with Erdoğan’s AKP leading an ultranationalist coalition.[33] Notably, the fundamentalist Islamist Free Cause Party (HÜDA PAR), known for its ties with Kurdish Islamist Hezbollah and its ultra-conservative views on women’s rights, won four parliamentary seats. [34]

The elections gave many hope that Türkiye could change its course of decline. However, now it is going to take more work than ever to achieve the vibrant, inclusive, thriving society that so many people want, in a country that is vital to the stability of Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.

[1] Kutay, Acar. “A Historical Analysis of the AKP in Power Hegemony, Predominance, and Interregnum.” Statsvetenskaplig tidskrift 123, no. 1 (March 9, 2021): 55–73.

[2] Pope, Hugh. “Erdoğan’s Decade.” The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, March 30, 2015. https://www.thecairoreview.com/essays/erdogans-decade/.

[3] “U.S. Dollar-Turkish Lira History: 2014.” Pound Sterling LIVE: Forecasts, News, Exchange Rates. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://www.poundsterlinglive.com/history/USD-TRY-2014.

[4] Erbil, Can, and Umit, Ozlale. “Turkey’s Currency Collapse Shows Just How Vulnerable Its Economy Is to a Crisis.” The Conversation, November 16, 2022. https://theconversation.com/turkeys-currency-collapse-shows-just-how-vulnerable-its-economy-is-to-a-crisis-101556.

[5] “USD to TRY Exchange Rate.” Bloomberg.com. Accessed April 28, 2023. https://www.bloomberg.com/quote/USDTRY:CUR.

[6]“Consumer Price Index”,Turkish Statistical Institute, accessed April 28, 2023, https://data.tuik.gov.tr/Bulten/Index?p=TuketiciFiyat-Endeksi-Eylul-2022-45798.

[7] “Workforce Statistics 2022.” Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu (TÜİK), March 23, 2023. https://data.tuik.gov.tr/Bulten/Index?p=Isgucu-Istatistikleri-2022-49390#:~:text=T%C3%9C%C4%B0K%20Kurumsal&text=15%20ve%20daha%20yukar%C4%B1%20ya%C5%9Ftaki,%10%2C4%20seviyesinde%20ger%C3%A7ekle%C5%9Fti.

[8] “Even According to Official Data, 32.6 per Cent of People in Turkey Are Poor.” Evrensel Daily, May 8, 2023. https://www.evrensel.net/haber/489484/even-according-to-official-data-32-6-per-cent-of-people-in-turkey-are-poor#:~:text=2023%2013%3A28-,Even%20according%20to%20official%20data%2C%2032.6%20per%20cent%20of%20people,or%20social%20exclusion%20in%202022.

[9]  “2023 Minimum Wage.” PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Accessed April 28, 2023. https://www.pwc.com.tr/tr/hizmetlerimiz/insan-yonetimi-ve-organizasyon-danismanligi/sosyal-guvenlik-hizmetleri/bultenler/2022/2023-yili-asgari-ucret.html .

[10] “In January 2023, the hunger limit is 8,782 TL and the poverty line is 30,379 TL!” DİSK-AR, DİSK Araştırma Merkezi, February 15, 2023. https://arastirma.disk.org.tr/?p=9754 .

[11] “Approach to the NEETs in Turkey,” Community Volunteers Foundation, accessed April 28, 2023, https://www.tog.org.tr/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Policy-Brief-Final.pdf.

[12] “Erdogan Says He Will Keep Battling Interest Rates, Hitting Lira.” CNBC, November 17, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/17/turkeys-erdogan-says-continuing-his-battle-against-interest-rates.html.

[13] Murat Kubilay, M. “The Ukraine War Has Upended Turkey’s Plans to Stabilize the Economy.” Middle East Institute, May 24, 2023. https://mei.edu/publications/ukraine-war-has-upended-turkeys-plans-stabilize-economy.

[14] Sonmez, Mustafa Sonmez. “Turkey’s Growing Current Account Gap Exacerbates Lira Weakness.” Al Monitor, June 13, 2022. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/06/turkeys-growing-current account-gap-exacerbates-lira-weakness.

[15] Murat Kubilay, M. “The Ukraine War Has Upended Turkey’s Plans to Stabilize the Economy.” Middle East Institute, May 24, 2023. https://mei.edu/publications/ukraine-war-has-upended-turkeys-plans-stabilize-economy.

[16] Sezgin, Volkan. “How Will Ukraine-Russia War Affect Turkish Trade?” Journal of Abant Social Sciences 22, no. 2 (July 31, 2022): 546–57. https://doi.org/10.11616/asbi.1091695.

[17] Sezgin, Volkan. “How Will Ukraine-Russia War Affect Turkish Trade?” Journal of Abant Social Sciences 22, no. 2 (July 31, 2022): 546–57. https://doi.org/10.11616/asbi.1091695.

[18] Kiriş, Ayça, Çağın Bulakbaşı Bulakbaşı, Ela Serpil Evliyaoğlu, Saha Araştırması, and Mustafa Onur Kaygısız. “Young People’s Political Preferences Survey Report” National Democratic Institute, GoFor, 2021.  https://go-for.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Baski-Genclerin-Politik-Tercihleri.pdf

[19] Robinson, Kali. “Turkey’s Growing Foreign Policy Ambitions,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 24, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/turkeys-growing-foreign-policy-ambitions.

[20] Wilks, Andrew. “As Russia’s War in Ukraine Drags on, Turkey’s Role Expands.” Russia-Ukraine war News | Al Jazeera, November 15, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/11/15/how-turkey-positions-itself-during-the-war-in-ukraine.

[21] Kusa, Iliya. “Turkey’s Goals in the Russia-Ukraine War | Wilson Center.” Wilson Center, June 13, 2022. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/turkeys-goals-russia-ukraine-war.

[22] Wilks, Andrew. “Turkey Reaps Rewards in International Standing as First Grain Ship Leaves Ukraine .” Al Monitor, August 1, 2022. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/08/turkey-reaps-rewards-international-standing-first-grain-ship-leaves-ukraine.

[23] Fraser, Suzan. “Turkey Demands ‘concrete Steps’ to Back Nordics’ Nato Bids.” AP NEWS, May 25, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-middle-east-turkey-98d9b2bf7de63b3044d118e833626 b13.

[24] “World Report 2023: Rights Trends in Turkey.” Human Rights Watch, January 20, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/turkey.

[25] “Turkey: Dangerous, Dystopian New Legal Amendments.” Human Rights Watch, October 14, 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/14/turkey-dangerous-dystopian-new-legal-amendments.

[26] “2021 Annual Report of We Will Stop Femicides Platform.” Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz, January 28, 2022. https://kadincinayetlerinidurduracagiz.net/veriler/3005/2021-annual-report-of-we-will-stop-femicides-platform.

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] World Report 2023: Rights Trends in Turkey.” Human Rights Watch, January 20, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/turkey.

[30] “Stoning Attack on Ekrem İmamoğlu at Erzurum Rally”, NTV, May 8, 2023. https://www.ntv.com.tr/turkiye/ekrem-imamogluna-erzurum-mitinginde-tasli-saldiri,OR6TkZPX9kSE_cl8T1uGnA.

[31] “International election observation mission Republic of Türkiye – General Elections, 14 May 2023.” OSCE, May 15, 2023. https://www.oscepa.org/en/documents/election-observation/election-observation-statements/turkey/statements-24/4687-2023-presidential-and-parliamentary-eng.

[32] Gadzo, Mersiha, Dalia Hatuqa, and Umut Uras. “Turkey Election Results Updates: Erdogan Declared Run-off Winner.” Al Jazeera, May 29, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/liveblog/2023/5/28/turkey-election-results-2023-live-erdogan-kilicdaroglu-run-off.

[33] Begumhan Bayhan, Balki. “Turkey: What to Expect from Erdoğan, His Ultranationalist Alliance and Their ‘family Values’ Pledges.” The Conversation, June 1, 2023. https://theconversation.com/turkey-what-to-expect-from-erdogan-his-ultranationalist-alliance-and-their-family-values-pledges-206732.

[34] Jacinto, Leela. “Erdogan Backs Kurdish Islamist Party – and Women Pay the Price.” France 24, June 2, 2023. https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230602-erdogan-backs-kurdish-islamist-party-%E2%80%93-and-women-pay-the-price.