What happens when the money runs out in Turkey?

A new slogan has emerged in Turkey after one angry citizen uttered it live on television, aptly summing up the country’s current plight: “The money’s gone.”

When money runs short, ordinary people naturally begin to take more of an interest in human rights abuses – poverty drives ordinary people to rebel.

This is why in the year 2020 the issue of money will shine a light on the other problems that have plagued Turkey in recent years, from foreign policy to human rights abuses.

Findings by neuroeconomists like Mark Dean reveal much about the way people’s perceptions are formed. One example came in a study on investment in gold – it found that investors were more likely to believe positive news stories about their investment.

In a similar way, those who find that their money has run out are more likely to increasingly empathise with news about others in a similarly bleak situation, like those in Turkey who have faced legal repression.

The defining feature of Turkish politics since 2013 has been the breakdown of the country’s economic stability. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was able to regain its credibility by patching up the economy and preventing full-blown crises several times since. But in 2020, there seems little left for the party to do.

The government will doubtless come out with big ideas to reinvigorate and prop up the economy – the quest for hydrocarbon wealth in the eastern Mediterranean is one of these, government stalls selling subsidised staple foods is another.

What Turkey needs, though, is manufacturing and the employment it brings. For all the AKP’s bright ideas, youth unemployment still hovers around 28 percent, and the government is doing nothing to address this.

So, what will President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan do when the money finally runs out?

He will certainly attempt to pull a rabbit out of his hat to fix certain economic problems, because he knows this would distract from pressing issues in other areas.

Besides that, he is sure to continue deepening his authoritarian practices to protect his own position.

If snap elections were held this year or next, the president would need to show some sort of economic progress. The urban middle classes and petit bourgeoisie would react well to signs of a turnaround – if the economy began to turn around for a few months after a long period of decline, they would be nervous to do anything that would upset the balance.

Erdoğan thus needs to go to the polls with a credible narrative on the economy. Any signs of a crisis would play into the hands of opponents like Ali Babacan, the former AKP deputy prime minister who quit the party last year to form a rival political movement.

The key question is what would take place if the president were unable to bring about an economic recovery and political change becomes inevitable.

There are two possibilities. The first is that Erdoğan accepts a pragmatic policy and the controlled loss of his power. This could see him turn to a number of alternatives, including a return to a parliamentary system of government.

Otherwise, there could be an attempt at full-on regime change. In that case, Erdoğan would see he is unable to recover the economy, and instead would impose a permanent regime.

This scenario seems less realistic now than it did one year ago. After 200 years of modernisation, Turkey may not have reached the level of democracy enjoyed in Scandinavian countries, but it is still no North Korea.

One important area that people often neglect is foreign policy. Today, the country has no real foreign policy to speak of. This is one of the reasons the president has found himself hemmed in.

There are two important new dynamics to consider when analysing Turkey. The first is that the country has experienced numerous severe economic crises since World War Two, but never a broader period of poverty. In June 2019, Turkish citizens held a total of $200 billion in bank accounts.

You cannot push the people of Turkey below a certain economic level. There is no doubt that the average Turk can be satisfied with poorer economic conditions than the average German. But Turks have become accustomed to a wealthier lifestyle than others, and if their standards fall below a certain level they will rebel.

Secondly, Turkey is split in two on topics such as modernity, Islam and secularism. Almost all Turks are religious to some degree, but half believe religion and politics should always be separate. No political paradigm has every maintained a permanent majority in the country.

So, the final important dynamic is the inherently secular lifestyle of the new generation of young Turkish people. The problems caused in the country by religious actors have provoked a reaction from young people against religion, and their lack of regard for Islamist causes seems to be lasting.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.