Weekly Review: With Hagia Sophia and legal victories set aside, Erdoğan forced to face economy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Islamist party seemingly scored two big victories last week – the conversion of Istanbul’s disputed Hagia Sophia monument and the passing of a contentious law over Turkish bar associations.

But there is little reason for Ankara to rejoice, according to experts and laymen alike, who are calling the moves smokescreens for the country’s continuing economic crisis.

Turkey made international headlines on Friday when the country’s highest administrative court annulled a 1934 decree that converted the Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum, essentially reverting it back into a Muslim house of worship, much to the protest of Western governments and institutions.

Shortly after, Erdoğan handed the administrative control of the UNESCO World Heritage Site to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Turkey’s top state religious body, which is expected to open the landmark for Muslim prayers on July 24.

A marvel of architecture and one of the world’s most significant religious sites ever built, the Hagia Sophia – originally built as a cathedral of the Eastern Roman Empire in 537 – was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 after the conquest of Istanbul, diverging from a tradition of tearing down religious monuments on conquered land, shared by Muslims and Christians alike at the time.

The site kept its designation as a mosque, but was repurposed as a museum in 1935 under the secular Republic of Turkey.

Hours after the Hagia Sophia announcement, Turkish parliament passed a law that would allow for multiple bar associations to be established in any given province with more than 5,000 lawyers registered.

It also scraps proportional representation of bars in the national umbrella organisation by effectively decreasing the number of delegates from Turkey’s major cities, which could reduce their funding.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argues that the formation of more bar associations would ensure a more democratic and pluralistic system. However, the majority of such associations – as well as opposition parties, many lawyers and activists – argue that the real intent of the draft law is to disempower existing associations in larger cities which have criticised the government for its violations of human rights and erosion of the rule of law.

The bill prepared by the AKP had passed with its own votes and that of the ruling party’s parliamentary partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); with 251 lawmakers voting to pass the legislation, and 163 voting against.

The law’s passing was viewed as a victory for the AKP in further silencing dissent towards its policies. Erdoğan’s decree on Friday meanwhile constituted a major step for his party in fulfilling a long-standing demand by their core Islamist voter base.

The Turkish president has repeatedly voiced a desire to open the Hagia Sophia up for daily worship again over the years, but delivered at a time when Turkey’s economy has severely suffered, with no small part blamed on government involvement.

Before the decree was signed and ordered, experts believed Erdoğan would seek to distract his waning voter base from Turkey’s economic distress with a win that would not incur significant political or financial cost to the president.

However, it is only a matter of time before the president may not be able to divert the public’s attention away the country’s worsening economic situation.

While the Turkish lira has slumped to a record low, inflation has skyrocketed. Consumer price inflation accelerated to 12.6 percent in June from 11.4 percent the previous month. An uptick in inflation has prompted the central bank to halt a series of interest rate cuts that has brought the benchmark lending rate down to 8.25 percent from 24 percent in July last year.

At the same, the central bank – urged on by the government – has used up tens of billions of dollars of its foreign exchange reserves to prevent the lira from weakening. 

The pandemic and the lasting effects of a 2018 currency crisis have also taken their toll on the economy, and no more so than in the jobs market.

Unemployment stood at 12.8 percent in the three months to May, the Turkish Statistical Institute said on Friday. That rate fell from 13.2 percent in April but had risen from 10.1 percent in July 2018.

The number of people employed in Turkey has contracted dramatically. The figure dropped by 2.59 million people to 25.6 million in the three months to May compared with the same period of 2019. The employment rate, or the proportion of the working age population in a job, was 41.1 percent, declining by 4.9 percentage points.

Turkey is heading for a second recession in less than two years – the IMF predicts that the country’s coronavirus epidemic will cause an economic contraction of five percent in 2020.

Meanwhile, country seeks to revive its $35-billion tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the European Union, a major source of tourists looking to forget their own outbreak experiences with a beach-time summer holiday, excluded Turkey from a list of countries for safe travel on the grounds that Turkey handled its outbreak inadequately.

Turkey has seen a rise in daily recorded coronavirus cases after Erdoğan’s government began to significantly ease COVID-19 restrictions on June 1.