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At a discount vegetable market in a tent in Istanbul, set up to woo support for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the atmosphere suddenly turns hostile. “They are spies! They are foreign agents!” shouts one thickly jacketed man in the early-morning line of customers, when an American reporter and his translator begin asking questions.
With Turkey’s economy under stress, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed the nation’s very “survival” is at stake. Turkey, he says, is under attack from manipulative foreign powers and price-gouging middlemen. The vote-buying ploy and the hostile rhetoric are all in the service of the AKP, which lost its majority in last year’s parliamentary election and is polling as low as 30 percent as municipal elections loom on March 31.
So, will offering tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, and potatoes at a fraction of the usual market price help the AKP succeed? It’s working, says a teashop owner in the district. “You have a lot of people say they will not vote for the AKP, but these people [the AKP] can bring the dead back to life,” he says. “One way or another, they will get the votes.”
Despite the morning chill, the Turkish shoppers began lining up to buy state-subsidized vegetables two hours early – and one month before they vote in municipal elections that could see the ruling party pummeled over Turkey’s economic crisis.
There is little hostility, at first, when the ad-hoc market opens: Those in line are happy to be there, they say, to buy tomatoes, onions, chickpeas, and potatoes at a fraction of the usual market price.
The marquee canvas tent in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul is like scores set up across the country – one of several pre-election measures to ease the financial stress on Turkish families announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Inside, where workers bag and weigh produce, banners hang, reading: “An all-out struggle against inflation,” with the hashtag: #turkeywillwin.
But the cut-price vegetable sale soon took on broader aspects of the election campaign, in which Mr. Erdoğan’s combative rhetoric targets “traitors” and claims that Turkey is under attack from manipulative foreign powers and price-gouging middlemen. According to Erdoğan the nation’s very “survival” is at stake.
“They are spies! They are foreign agents!” shouts one thickly jacketed man in the line, when an American reporter and his translator begin asking questions. “They are the ones that started all this in the first place!”
Not all the Turks there agree, and some are willing to speak.
“It’s really crowded, it’s always crowded,” says Hakan, an official salesman wearing blue rubber gloves and a warm black hat as he prepares sacks of spinach. “Thanks to the prime minister and president.... It’s helping people who need it, so the people are really happy – it’s a great service.”
“If it’s not good for us, why would we be here?” asks one man in line who gives the name Kenan. Someone else suggests the visitors had “come from America” to create “propaganda” for the main opposition party.
Declining support for AKP
It’s a touchy time for shoppers at the AKP-organized tent.
During its 17 years at the top of Turkish politics, the AKP and its powerful grassroots machine – led by the charismatic Erdoğan – have won nearly every election in their path.
But the AKP lost its majority in last year’s parliamentary election, and some polls show AKP support as low as 30 percent as the March 31 municipal vote looms.
Adding to the AKP’s challenge, Turkey’s economy has been battered in recent years, with the currency losing one quarter of its value in 2018 alone. And there are reportedly preparations among former AKP big shots to form a new, breakaway party if the AKP does poorly at the polls.
“This is not a poverty line – it’s not for poor folks,” asserts Kenan, as he details how much cheaper vegetables are here. “We’re on the side of the government, and we always are.... This is a measure for the public good.”
One woman in line is not so charitable: “People are hungry, this is obvious. So why are you asking?” she said.
Within minutes, a security guard approaches, demanding that the reporter leave, and saying that the people in line were threatening to call the police if he does not.
‘All to get votes’
A teashop owner in the same district states what no one in the vegetable line would articulate: “These [vegetable tents] are all for the elections, it’s all to get votes,” says Fatih, who asks that only his first name be used. “They are all just pre-election tricks to get the people’s vote.”
And it’s working, he says, just as it did during the June 2018 election, in which a bare majority – just over 52 percent – gave Erdoğan unprecedented new powers. It was a lackluster result, after months of intense AKP campaigning, and vast payouts to retirees and other tactics that added up to $5.5 billion in new spending.
Analysts at the time said Erdoğan had moved that election forward by 18 months to avoid the negative fallout from an anticipated financial crunch. That crisis has since descended, with 20 percent inflation, a surge in food prices, and growing unemployment and bankruptcies. As recession looms, election promises from the AKP include creating 2.5 million new jobs in 2019.
“You have a lot of people say they will not vote for the AKP, but these people [the AKP] can bring the dead back to life,” says Fatih. “One way or another, they will get the votes.”
For weeks already, Erdoğan has raised the stakes by tirelessly holding at least two campaign rallies a day in different cities, reminding the AKP base in granular detail about everything that has been done for them, from the smallest local services to nation-building big infrastructure projects.
An increasingly strident part of Erdoğan’s message is that all the AKP’s progress has been made despite powerful enemies, at home and abroad. He likened price gougers to “terrorists.”
“The prices of vegetables were rising abnormally. It was manipulation. It was economic assassination. We couldn’t wait,” Erdoğan said in a television interview on Feb. 26. “When you have these middlemen raising prices, it’s the state’s job to get rid of them.... We won’t let our people get exploited.”
The leader of Turkey, a NATO ally, has also accused the US and the European Union of trying to destabilize the country. Turkey had for six years been under “multi-pronged attacks more than ever before; none of these was a coincidence,” Erdoğan said at a rally last week in eastern Turkey.
But some blame the AKP for mismanagement, like electrical shop owner Yilmaz. He voted twice for the AKP and now “really regrets” that he did. His customers in dire straights bargain over the price of a single light bulb, and he has “given up making a profit.” He says he won’t get married or have children because “I don’t see a future.”
“You know what hope is? New blood – this government has to go,” says Yilmaz. “New people, no matter how bad, are better. The system today is only working for itself. They [the AKP] are treating people as fools.”
Beside the vegetable sale points in a half dozen cities – which in recent days expanded to include legumes, rice, and other staples – Erdoğan in January vowed that the state would pay a portion of electricity bills, and introduced relief from credit card debt at state-run banks.
The opposition newspaper Sözcü echoed other critics, calling the moves an “election bribe.”
“Nobody asks why these people cannot pay their debts. Nobody produces a long-term solution,” columnist Murat Muratoğlu wrote, in a translation by the Al-Monitor website. “Now the election is coming, and if [the government] doesn’t distribute money, it will be buried in the ballot boxes.”
Green grocers struggling
But not everyone is happy about the vegetable fire sale, top among them Turkey’s produce retailers. AKP officials speak triumphantly about how prices have now dropped at big chain stores, but also hit are corner shops, where green grocers are struggling. Across the market all are selling at a loss, according to news reports.
“If this continues, we are done for,” says Metin Fincan, the owner for 23 years of a tiny vegetable kiosk, whose prices – already reduced – are double those at the sale tents.
“People ask, ‘Why is it so expensive? Why are you selling tomatoes for 6 liras [$1.14] a kilogram?’” he says. Mr. Fincan was once able to sell 10 boxes of tomatoes in two days, but now can’t sell five boxes in four days.
“There are thousands of us [green grocers], but millions of them buying cheaper vegetables,” he says, surmising the AKP vote calculation, and adding that Turks easily fall prey to such tactics at election time.
“In the  election the AKP thought they would take a hit, so they gave something to retirees,” says Fincan. “This time they must have looked at the polls and come up with this.”