Economic slide sends support for Erdogan to all-time low

Hediye Bas blames the dams, highways and the network of tunnels that cut through the forested Ikizdere Valley in northeastern Turkey for suffocating water supplies and stunting their crops. Now the work on a planned quarry is proving to be a breaking point and undermining their support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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

Dynamite has already blasted parts of the mountain for an access road and briefly turned the creek in which Bas’ family is fishing an unnatural turquoise. To operate the quarry, trees up to 1m will be felled and explosives will make nearby vegetable patches toxic, while biodiversity in an adjacent conservation area will be endangered, warns a local conservation group.

Erdogan “probably thought we would support every project he does here because he wins almost all of our votes. But I won’t vote for him anymore, ”said Bas. “Nobody from the village can find work in these projects, they just take away the valley that we depend on for our income.”

The rare protest in one of the president’s strongholds symbolizes a widespread dissatisfaction with his economic responsibilities, which polls show undermine support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) across the country. Inflation has almost always stayed in double digits for the past four years, and unemployment is around 14 percent.

The $ 200 million port is part of $ 325 billion Infrastructure investments planned in Turkey over the next ten years. Erdogan has placed his economic hopes on the huge construction frenzy, including a $ 15 billion shipping canal that will turn half of Istanbul into an island. At the laying of the foundation stone last month, Erdogan said these projects laid the foundation stone for “building a large and powerful Turkey”.

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

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

The Turkish villager Hediye Bas says the locals in Rize regret not having opposed previous construction projects in the region © Ayla Jean Yackley / FT

“It is difficult for the government to publicly justify the cost of mega-projects when household finances are suffering and people are concerned for their livelihoods and kitchen bills,” said Can Selcuki, director of the Turkiye Raporu polling institute.

A number of opinion polls show support for the AKP at an all-time low. A June poll by Turkiye Raporu found it had fallen to 26 percent. The next elections in Turkey are scheduled for 2023, but almost 60 percent of those polled wanted quick polls. The agency’s May poll showed that Erdogan – for a long time Turkey’s most popular politician – lags behind three opposition figures who have been discussed as presidential candidates. The “basic consensus” behind the slump is widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, Selcuki said.

Erdogan has 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 coincided with political volatility, including an attempted coup in 2016, an aggressive foreign policy that brought him into conflict with Western trading partners and unorthodox economic policy that scared off foreign investors and hit the country’s finances.

Map of Turkey

In Rize he retains hero status. Welcome to Erdogan Land, reads a billboard on the way to the provincial capital, also called Rize and home of Recep Tayyip Erdogan University. Enormous images of the president adorn buildings in the city of 150,000, where he received 79 percent of the vote in the 2018 presidential election.

But here, too, dissenting voices have been heard. Mehmet Ali Sancaktutan, who resigned from the AKP two years ago, said neighbors warned him not to leave his home in nearby Guneysu – where Erdogan spent part of his childhood – after he was arrested by police for being complained in a YouTube video about the president’s handling of the economy during an interview in June.

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

Saltuk Deniz, the provincial leader of the largest opposition Republican People’s Party, said his party tripled its share of the vote in recent local elections.

Villagers in Rize continue their vigil in protest against a planned quarry that will dig 20 million tons of stone for a new Black Sea port
Villagers in Rize continue their vigil in protest against a planned quarry that will excavate 20 million tons of stone for a new Black Sea port © Ayla Jean Yackley / FT

“People gather around one of their own in Rize, but we see that bond dissolve as people’s economic problems grow,” he said.

In Ikizdere, about 50 people have sued to stop the quarry and have entered their third month of vigil in an abandoned factory adorned with Turkish flags. Many others gave up the protest after Transport Minister Adil Karaismailoglu said the port would bring jobs to the community and accused “marginalized groups and outsiders” of inciting dissenting views.

Meanwhile, the tea bushes Bas planted a few years ago are not growing, and she fears the nearby dams are exacerbating local climate change. Production of the region’s prized “insane honey” – from bees that feed on rhododendrons that contain a hallucinatory substance – has declined sharply, while the rapid development in the Black Sea provinces is widely blamed for fatal landslides and floods.

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

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