Soaring energy bills deepen crisis for Turks and Erdogan

ISTANBUL – It started with some outraged customers posting photos of their electricity bills on social media, showing that the charge had almost doubled by the end of January. But such complaints quickly turned into a full-blown political crisis for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The Turks have been hit by runaway inflation – now officially over 48% – for several months, and criticism has grown from Mr. Erdogan’s own allies as he struggles to bring the land back. country out of the economic crisis. The Turkish lira has sunk to a record low. Food and fuel prices have more than doubled. Now it is electric.

Even as Mr. Erdogan raised the minimum wage last month to help low-income workers, his government has warned that there will be an increase in the utility fees it sets. But few expected such a shock.

“We are devastated,” said Mahmut Goksu, 26, who runs a barber shop in Konya province in central Turkey. “We are in really bad form. Not only us, but everyone complains.”

Mr. Goksu’s January electricity bill increased 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 paying job, but this is my business,” he said.

Electricity prices rose across the country, but every business and household saw an increase.

Ilyas Senturk, 29, a motorbike courier in Istanbul, shares an apartment with a roommate and says his electricity bill has more than doubled, but friends have already received it. bill double, even quadruple his amount.

“We were all in debt in the last three months,” he said of his friends and colleagues. “Sometimes we can’t find the money.”

Mr Senturk said the increase in his electricity bill may seem small, but it equates to the cost of his weekly commute – or his weekly food bill.

“We are trying to dim the lights or use smaller bulbs,” he said. “With all the other increases, that’s a huge increase.”

Turkey’s economy was already in recession before the pandemic hit, and because the country relies heavily on tourism and the hospitality industry, the months of closure have hit many businesses hard. The government offers some compensation, but mostly in the form of loans to rehabilitate businesses and workers. Many people like Mr. Senturk are still paying the price.

Restaurants and cafes trying to recover from two years of losses due to the pandemic are 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-owned restaurant in the southern city of Adana. “We have delivered. My credit card exploded and we were taken to a debt enforcement office.”

He took out a government-funded bank loan but complained about the interest payments. “They say it’s support, but it’s not,” Mr. Tiniz said. “They get it back with interest.”

In January, his rent went up to 15,000 lira (about $1,150 at the time), then the electricity bill was even higher at 17,000 lira, and Mr. went to twitter to sound the alarm. He was among the first of what developed into a storm of complaints from citizens.

“I wrote that tweet so the government could hear my voice,” he said in an interview at his restaurant.

Mr. Tiniz said that despite the difficulties during the pandemic, there is always hope that things will get better, but hyperinflation is shaking everything in the entire food chain, from farmers, traders to customers. goods in his restaurant.

“In December, chili is 8 lira/kg. Today, they are 22 lira. Cucumbers are six lira, today 20 lira,” he said. “I have never bought an eggplant for more than six lira. Today, it is 30 lira. It has increased 400-500 percent. “

“It was really a disaster,” he said. “By March, it will be worse.”

Erdogan’s political opponents have for months warned that the country is headed for economic collapse. But in a system almost entirely under Erdogan’s sole control, he makes decisions about almost everything and keeps his own advice.

Despite warnings from economists, Erdogan has steadfastly refused to raise interest rates, a conventional tool to combat inflation, arguing that it will only hurt the poor.

Electricity prices are set by a government agency, the Energy Markets Regulatory Commission, or EPDK, which will not increase without the president’s approval.

But since Mr. Erdogan has been in charge of so much, he also risks becoming a target for Turkish anger. Protesters jumped to double electricity bills in the latest sign of mismanagement by his government.

The leader of the largest opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, announced that he would refuse to pay electricity bills in an act of protest.

“I have to announce the pain of the masses,” he explained later in a statement. “They leave no space for residents who cannot pay their electricity bills to speak up. Who will be their voice? “

Many also blame private power distribution companies, owned by some of Turkey’s biggest corporations and some of Mr. Erdogan’s close associates, for profiteering.

“It didn’t happen suddenly,” said Mehmet Ozdag, a board member of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers, a professional association. “We’ve been hearing these footsteps for the past 20 years.”

The government, which has spent billions of dollars to support its dwindling and increasingly cash-strapped currency, struggled this week to respond to complaints going on around the country.

The Energy Secretary, Fatih Donmez, defended the increase in comments twice last week, saying it reflected a rise in global prices, but promised cheaper rates per part of the bill for merchants core. Late last week, the government also announced that it would reduce the value-added tax on food products from 8% to 1%.

Mr. Erdogan addressed the topic in a nationally televised address following a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, calling on his audience to be sensible. It is thanks to his government that Turkey is no longer short of electricity and Turkish people still enjoy the cheapest electricity rates of any developed country, he said.

More than 60% of consumers benefited from some form of electricity bill subsidy in January, he said, and promised additional support for low-income households, small businesses and organizations. non-profit organization.

“As always, to this day, we are listening to the voices of our country and finding solutions to their problems,” Erdogan said.

Nimet Kirac contributed reporting from Adana, Turkey and Safak Timur from Istanbul. Soaring energy bills deepen crisis for Turks and Erdogan

Fry Electronics Team

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