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  1. The International Interview
7 December 2021updated 14 Dec 2021 1:25pm

“There’s 15 minutes until collapse”: Ece Temelkuran on fears that Turkey’s economic crisis could turn violent

The author on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, Turkey’s currency crash and how to save democracy.

By Megan Gibson

“When right-wing populism comes to town, it creates this extreme polarisation not only in [the] political but also in everyday life as well,” said the author Ece Temelkuran. “Turkey has been through that, and the very fabric of society has been damaged.”

She should know. As one of Turkey’s most prominent journalists, Temelkuran has been tracking the increasing authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) since he first became leader in 2003. As the president has tightened his grip on power, press freedoms have been steadily eroded in the country.

Temelkuran left her home in Turkey following the attempted military coup in 2016 and Erdoğan’s subsequent media crackdown (more than 200 journalists have been imprisoned in the country since then). She has been living abroad ever since.

Though she’s often described as an exiled journalist, Temelkuran tells me she doesn’t like that description. “There are people who want to see me as this intellectual woman, escaping from barbarians, throwing herself into the arms of civilisation,” she said when we speak via video call from her home in Zagreb, Croatia. “I never liked that narrative.” Indeed, the author of How to Lose a Country: The 7 steps From Democracy to Dictatorship (2019) and this year’s Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now has often pointed out that the authoritarianism that has dominated Turkey for years now has the potential to take root in Western nations as well.

Yet, although she has removed herself from Erdoğan’s authoritarian reach, Temelkuran said that observing the country’s current economic crisis and rising political tension from afar is still painful. “You’re physically in another country, but mentally, you are still back there,” she said.

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As the value of Turkey’s currency, the lira, has plunged to record-breaking lows over the course of this year – by 1 December it had fallen 46 per cent compared with its value against the US dollar at the outset of 2021 – so too has support for the ruling party. Though the president has long had an uncanny ability to spin crises in his favour, recent polls suggest that anger at soaring living costs is starting to bite: since 2018, Erdoğan’s support has dropped from 42.6 per cent to just over 30 per cent.

That Erdoğan-backed fiscal policies, such as slashing interest rates despite rising inflation, are exacerbating the economic crisis certainly hasn’t helped. Nor has the suggestion from Zülfü Demirbağ, an MP in his party, that people who are struggling to make ends meet should try eating less.

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Temelkuran said that the crisis is being acutely felt by her friends and family back home. “It’s not only poor people,” she said. Even among her middle-class milieu, which includes “a well-known theatre actress, one rock star and two lawyers”, there is talk of “trying to stock up on things”.

“There is no normality,” she added. “Living has been reduced to surviving.”

On top of the increased pressure on households, Temelkuran said there is a growing sense that there is an undercurrent of violence running through the country. Small protests have broken out in recent weeks, leading to arrests in Istanbul and Ankara. There are fears that there will be more and that they won’t be peaceful. “There’s 15 minutes until collapse, total collapse,” warned Temelkuran. “What I see today in Turkey is very much like what we had seen in Venezuela few years ago.”

Temelkuran would like to see Erdoğan removed via a democratic transfer of power, “but this economic crisis is creating the fear of a violent transformation in Turkey”, she said.

This is the backdrop against which Turkey’s political opposition is rallying to take on Erdoğan ahead of the general election scheduled for June 2023. Not only have opposition parties begun advocating for an early election – which Erdoğan has so far ruled out – they have also started working together to form a unified front. (Opposition parties in Hungary and Brazil are also trying out similar tactics ahead of their upcoming elections.)

There is some cause for hope: even allies of the president are questioning their position, Temelkuran said. “Right now, only those whose [livelihoods are] connected to Erdoğan’s political career are supporting him. I think he’s lost a grip [on his base].”

“I don’t know if [the united opposition] is going to be successful,” Temelkuran said: the disparate nature of the parties means they form a fragile alliance. But she is still hopeful, if only “because this is literally the last chance for Turkey”.

[See also: With Turkey in crisis, Erdoğan leans into chaos]