Turks Take to the Streets to Protest Price Hikes by Kayla Koontz

Protests have broken out across Turkey in the last month in response to newly announced electricity price hikes. The price hikes intensified ongoing organized labor action from food delivery workers, grocery warehouse employees, health workers, and opposition leaders from all across the country. Turkey’s exorbitant inflation coupled with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s refusal to increase interest rates is spurring mass popular unrest just a year before the scheduled general election. The protests and subsequent arrests showcase a newfound collective desperation as Turkish citizens risk arrest and the loss of their jobs as a result of protesting, organizing, and burning their electricity bills. Even as Erdogan claims there is “no need to fuss about bills,” Turkish citizens are struggling to find a way to make ends meet with no relief in sight as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power as a neoliberal economic powerhouse under Erdogan, loses economic vitality as one of its biggest campaign talking points.

The increase announced by Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Authority on January 1, 2022 of electricity for lower-demand households by 52 percent and 127 percent for high-demand commercial users. Erdogan blames rising global energy prices. Protesters say that the AKP’s mismanagement led to Turkey’s financial ruin while their employers refuse to raise wages to match inflation rates and ignore worsening working conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A week after the price hikes were announced, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu released a video vowing to abstain from paying his electricity bill until the prices normalize. This act of civil disobedience could be another attempt to boost support for Kilicdaroglu ahead of the scheduled 2023 presidential elections despite some calling for a more popular opposition candidate. Regardless, Kilicdaroglu is just one of many Turkish citizens who refused to pay their bill.

On February 3, one of the most contentious strikes in Istanbul ended in the Videos of a worker crying in handcuffs sparked harsh criticism against Migros CEO Tuncay Özilhan. In another area of the city, pink clad motorcycle food couriers employed at the popular food delivery service YemekSepeti gathered with union leaders to demand that their pay be increased above minimum wage. Couriers have been hit especially hard by the increase in gasoline prices as they must provide their own fuel.

Large union conglomerates have also taken to the streets across the country. Members of the Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions (KESK), supported by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), supported by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), gathered to burn their electricity bills and demand Erdogan’s resignation. Traditional unions have been in decline since the rise of AKP in 2002 but many civil servants have flocked to pro-government public sector union conglomerates. Recent union-led protests reflect a common interest among the ideologically varied opposition and a renewed importance to private sector union activity. Relative wage decreases could push tensions over AKP rule to a boiling point, even as the party under Erdogan has worked to continually disempower organized labor.

Perhaps more distressing for Erdogan are the rallies being held within his base in the Black Sea region and in conservative cities like Konya. In Rize, Erdogan’s familial hometown and a city representing the AKP’s economic appeal to traditionally lower income Black Sea communities, members of the Felicity Party, Democrat Party, and DİSK protested outside AKP offices. In Konya, a municipality where the AKP was able to maintain its control during the 2019 upset elections, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)’s rival the Good Party (IYI) gathered a large crowd in the downtown area to protest the price hikes. With only 24 percent of respondents in a survey conducted in December 2021 saying they would vote for the AKP if the elections were to happen that week, Erdogan also runs the risk of losing his grip on his base amid increased economic woes.

Since introducing the price hikes, Erdogan has taken measures to mitigate public backlash. He reduced the VAT tax on basic food products from 8 percent to 1 percent, increased the minimum wage, and promised to offer more subsidies for energy bills. Still, unions and opposition representatives demand greater changes to Turkey’s economic policies as well as more government-funded assistance. Success stories like the Migros workers who reached a settlement with their employers on February 20, 2022 and continued mass opposition street protests may help unite the disjointed opposition into a coalition devoted to reinstating parliamentary power and alleviating financial distress.

Author: Kayla Koontz is an external contributor to Navanti News. She studies Kurdish insurgent groups and political movements in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Koontz holds an MA from UC Berkeley in Global Studies.  She studied and worked in Turkey and had previously written for the Middle East Institute, Newlines Institute, and Bellingcat. Follow her on Twitter at @kay_koontz.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Navanti Group or its partners.