It started with a few outraged customers posting photos of their electricity bills on social media, showing how charges had nearly doubled by the end of January. But such complaints quickly snowballed into a real political crisis for the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turks have been plagued by runaway inflation – now officially above 48% – for several months, and criticism is mounting even from Erdogan’s own allies as he struggles to pull the country out of an economic crisis. The Turkish lira reached historically low levels. Food and fuel prices have already more than doubled. Now it’s electricity.
Even though Erdogan raised the minimum wage last month to help low-income workers, his government has warned that there will be an increase in utility fees that he sets. But few expected such a shock.
“We are devastated,” said Mahmut Goksu, 26, who runs a hair salon in Konya province in central Turkey. “We are in really bad shape. Not only us, but everyone is complaining.
Goksu’s electricity bill in January jumped from $44 to $104 and is now higher than the monthly rent he pays for his store. “My first thought was to quit and get a paid job, but that’s my business,” he said.
Electricity price increases varied across the country, but every business and every household saw some increase.
Ilyas Senturk, 29, a motorcycle courier in Istanbul, shares a flat with a flatmate and said his electricity bill had more than doubled, but friends had received bills twice or even four times higher than the his.
“We’ve all gone into debt in the last three months,” he said of his friends and colleagues. “Sometimes we can’t find money.”
Senturk said the increase in his electricity bill may seem small, but it was equivalent to the cost of a weekly commute – or his weekly food bill. “We try to dim the lights or use smaller bulbs,” he said. “With all the other increases, it’s a huge increase.”
Turkey’s economy was already in recession before the pandemic hit, and as it relies heavily on tourism and the hospitality industry, the months of lockdown have severely hurt many businesses. The government has offered some compensation, but mostly in the form of loans to help businesses and workers. Many like Senturk continue to pay them.
Restaurants and cafes trying to recover from two years of pandemic losses were also reeling this month after electricity and gas bills doubled.
“During the pandemic, we were closed for 19 months,” said Ilker Tiniz, 37, who runs a family restaurant in the southern city of Adana. “We made the delivery. My credit cards blew up and we were taken to the prosecution office.
He took out a government-sponsored bank loan, but complained about the interest payments. “They said it was support, but it’s not,” Tiniz said. “They’re picking it up with interest.”
In January, his rent rose to 15,000 lira (about $1,150 at the time), then the electricity bill rose again to 17,000 lira, and Tiniz took to Twitter to sound the alarm. His was among the first of what turned into a storm of complaints from citizens.
“I wrote this tweet so the government would hear my voice,” he said in an interview at his restaurant.
Despite the hardships during the pandemic, there had always been hope that things would improve, Tiniz said, but runaway inflation was shaking everything up and down the food chain, from farmers to market traders to food processors. customers of his restaurant.
“In December, peppers were at 8 lira per kilo. Today they were 22 lire. The cucumber was 6 lira; today it was 20 lira,” he said. “I have never bought eggplant for more than 6 lira. Today it is 30 lire. It increased by 400 to 500%.
“It really is a disaster,” he said. “By March it will be worse.”
Political opponents of Erdogan have been warning for months that the country is heading for economic collapse. But in a system almost entirely under the exclusive control of Erdogan, he makes decisions on virtually everything and keeps his own council.
Despite warnings from economists, Erdogan has staunchly refused to raise interest rates, the usual inflation-fighting tool, arguing that it would only hurt the poor.
The price of electricity is set by a government agency, the Energy Market Regulatory Board, or EPDK, which would not have made the increases without the president’s approval.
But because Erdogan took on so much, he also risked becoming a target of Turkish ire. Opponents jumped on the doubling of electricity bills as the latest sign of mismanagement by his government.
The leader of the largest opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, announced that he would refuse to pay his electricity bill in an act of protest.
“I have to announce the pain of the broad masses,” he later explained in a speech. “They didn’t leave space for the citizen who cannot pay his electricity bill to make his voice heard. Who would be their voice?
Many have also accused private electricity distribution companies, which are owned by some of Turkey’s biggest conglomerates, some of which are close associates of Erdogan, of profiteering.
“It didn’t happen suddenly,” said Mehmet Ozdag, a board member of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers, a trade association. “We’ve been hearing these footsteps for 20 years.”
The government, which has spent billions of dollars to support the currency’s decline and is increasingly strapped for cash, has had to scramble this week to respond to complaints that are spreading across the country.
Energy Minister Fatih Donmez twice defended the increase in comments last week, saying it reflected rising global prices, but promised cheaper rates on part of the bill for tradespeople. The government also announced last weekend that it was reducing a value added tax on food products from 8% to 1%.
Erdogan broached the subject at length in a speech on national television after a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, calling on his audience to be reasonable. It is thanks to his government that Turkey no longer suffers from power shortages and that Turkish citizens still enjoy the cheapest electricity prices of all developed countries, he said.
More than 60% of consumers received some form of subsidy on electricity bills in January, he said, and he promised additional help for low-income households, small businesses and organizations to non-profit.
“As always, to this day we listen to the voice of our nation,” Erdogan said, “and find solutions to their problems.”