Just two blocks away, however, business has been nearly halved at Faruk’s greengrocer since the government introduced the food stalls. Faruk, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution for speaking out, has slashed his profit margin on the fruits and vegetables he buys from wholesalers, but still can’t compete with the cut-rate government-subsidized food sold up the street.
“The president attacks shopkeepers and farmers, but if I go out of business,” he said, “that’s another family that will go hungry.”
Large supermarket chains, facing regulatory investigations, have dropped prices on staples such as onions and potatoes, posting signs that claim they are selling them at a loss, and have set limits on how much customers can buy at one time. Some stores have even stopped stocking expensive eggplants and peppers to avoid angering Erdoğan.
While food sellers have taken the brunt of the pressure, Erdoğan has sought to mobilize other businesses in his economic crusade. State-run banks are offering Turks cheap mortgages and loans to pay off credit-card bills, and regulators have opened probes of private banks, including JPMorgan, for allegedly encouraging clients to buy foreign currency ahead of the election. Employers in January were required to raise the minimum wage by 26 percent, and now the government is even paying three months of wages and a year of social security for new workers, a bid to coax businesses to hire more people and rein in unemployment, which is at almost 14 percent. Among youth, one out of every four people is out of work.
“None of these address the structural reforms the Turkish economy requires, but instead treat the condition with bandages and aspirin,” says Faik Öztrak, a former head of the Turkish treasury who is now a lawmaker with the opposition Republican People’s Party.
During Erdoğan’s 16 years in power, his electoral success was largely built on his stewardship of the economy, as Turks saw their income triple. But a sweeping crackdown in 2016 after a failed military coup expelled tens of thousands of his opponents from civic life and has allowed Erdoğan to rule largely without check. He was then elected in June last year to a vastly empowered presidency and named his son-in-law as finance minister to manage the economy. The concentration of power unnerved investors, especially after a diplomatic row in August between Erdoğan and Donald Trump over Turkey’s arrest of an American pastor.
The economy is the top worry in opinion polls ahead of the March 31 election, when nearly 58 million voters will choose more than 80 mayors. The dissatisfaction has put control of the country’s two biggest cities, Ankara and Istanbul—both longtime AKP strongholds—in play for the first time in two decades.
Even though his name is not on the ballot, Erdoğan has been leading near-daily rallies ahead of the polls. Municipalities are a key source of political patronage, and losing a city such as Istanbul, where Erdoğan was mayor in the 1990s, means ceding control of huge budgets and government contracts that create jobs.
For Lütfü Güler, a 75-year-old retired civil servant, the lines that form outside the food tents before the first trucks arrive each morning are an attempt to “buy votes.”
“Look around; everyone is unhappy. These lines are shameful,” he says. “We have destroyed everything, but no one takes responsibility. Who has ever heard of a food terrorist before?”