“Erdogan is consolidating his power in the shadow of the corona pandemic”

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In the shadow of the corona pandemic, President Erdoğan is consolidating his power. For this he wants to fly to the moon and fuels a conflict with students in Turkey. But the economic crisis continues.

It’s another big Erdoğan show. After bridges, mosques, a subway and palaces, the next big PR campaign started last week. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to shoot Turkey to the moon – or in other words: Turkey intends to conquer the moon. “In the first phase, we want to detonate a Turkish hybrid rocket in Earth orbit at the end of 2023 so that it can reach the moon and land on the moon,” said the Turkish president on Tuesday. As is so often the case with the president, the Turkish lunar program is one thing above all else: Erdoğan’s next fig leaf to divert attention from domestic political problems.

Erdoğan wants to shoot Turkey to the moon: his space program is staged in the country on a large scale. (Source: AP / dpa)

The official start of the Turkish space program comes at a time of great political upheaval in Turkey. In terms of foreign policy, the change in power in the USA is forcing the government to turn away from the constant confrontational course of recent years. Domestically, the country is still grappling with an economic crisis – due to the corona pandemic and the decline in the lira. Erdoğan has not yet managed to get these problems under control, and criticism of his policies is growing in the country. In the struggle for power, the Turkish president is again focussing on division.

Erdoğan receives ridicule and criticism

In the current financial crisis, Turkey does not actually have the money for lunar adventures at the moment, which is probably one of the reasons why Erdoğan left the question of costs open. Parts of his supporters reacted with jubilation to the space program and followed Erdoğan’s call on the Internet to find a Turkish word for astronaut of their own.

In the social networks, however, scorn and ridicule prevailed, and the opposition in Turkey in particular exercised sharp criticism. According to media reports, Engin Altay of the Kemalist CHP said that with the estimated budget you could at most make it to Mount Everest, “you won’t get any higher with it”.

A politician from the pro-Kurdish HDP, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, tweeted a photo showing a garbage collector transporting two children on her garbage bag. Basically, he criticized the fact that Turkey wanted to fly to the moon, but could not cover the most basic needs of the population.

Economic crisis exacerbates poverty

Indeed, Turkey’s major economic problems persist. In the wake of the corona pandemic and the crash of the lira, the rate of company bankruptcies rose by 43 percent, and estimates suggest that the unemployment rate is just under 20 percent. Further warning signs: According to a survey by the DISK trade union, seven out of ten people in Turkey are in debt and 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

The Turkish President speaks at a forum organized by the Turkish broadcaster TRT World: Most of the time, however, he remains silent on the economic problems.  (Source: dpa)The Turkish President speaks at a forum organized by the Turkish broadcaster TRT World: Most of the time, however, he remains silent on the economic problems. (Source: dpa)

Rising poverty in the country is increasingly becoming a symbol of the president’s political failure, which is one of the reasons why Erdoğan remains silent. Instead, he is planning two new palaces in 2021 alone, costs: the equivalent of over 80 million euros. In addition, there is the space program and war participation in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. The country cannot actually afford any of that at the moment.

The fall in the lira has been slowed down somewhat since January, but inflation remains at a high level despite the recent sharp hikes in the key interest rate by the central bank. In January, the inflation rate was just under 15 percent, said the national statistics office. At the beginning of the year, the Turkish inflation rate is higher than it has been since August 2019. In the past few months, the central bank tried to get the rise under control by increasing interest rates several times, some of which were very strong. Erdoğan had spoken out in favor of low interest rates several times in previous years.

Foreign policy cuddle course

To distract attention from such problems with large propaganda initiatives has long been Erdoğan’s strategy. This was also revealed by his son-in-law and ex-finance minister Berat Albayrak two years ago. In order to keep the ranks of his supporters united, the Turkish president is also constantly looking for conflicts at home and abroad. His calculation: to nourish patriotism in Turkey in order to then be able to present himself as the first defender of his country against the numerous enemies.

The list of countries, ethnic groups and rulers with whom he has quarreled over the past five years is long: Greece, France, Cyprus, Armenia, the European Union, Israel, Germany, the USA and Christians in general. In order to maintain power he sacrificed the peace process with the Kurdish PKK, and Erdoğan sent soldiers to Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh to establish Turkey as a regional power. This strategy – with patriotism to maintain power – always worked.

Reception in the White House: Trump usually had a good relationship with Erdoğan.  (Source: imago images)Reception in the White House: Trump usually had a good relationship with Erdoğan. (Source: imago images)

But the constant conflicts also led to the crash of the lira, because Erdoğan financed the economic boom of his country through foreign currency and loans in his 20 years in power. In order to curb the decline of his own currency, the president is now relying on a change of course in foreign policy. This is also due to the change in power in the USA: Donald Trump largely did not care about the conflicts in the Mediterranean region – Turkey now fears different tones from Joe Biden.

That is why Erdoğan is currently taking a cuddle course in foreign policy. With the EU and Greece one is slowly coming to one another in the Mediterranean conflict.

A new Gezi escalation?

This is where other internal political conflicts that distract from the economic crisis come in handy for the president. In Istanbul, students and academics from the renowned Boğaziçi University as well as supporters have been protesting for more than a month against the appointment of the new Rector Melih Bulu, who was appointed by Erdoğan and is close to the ruling party AKP.

The sharpness with which the Turkish government reacted to the student protests reveals how much they want to shift the public focus on them. The young people are “members of terrorist organizations,” said Erdoğan. They have no national and moral values ​​in Turkey and are eager to occupy the Rector’s office.

Ankara: Students take part in protests.  Students and faculty members of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul have been demonstrating for weeks against the appointment of a new rector.  (Source: dpa)Ankara: Students take part in protests. Students and faculty members of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul have been demonstrating for weeks against the appointment of a new rector. (Source: dpa)

The president said that terrorists would never be allowed to rule in Turkey and that whatever was necessary would be done about it. “This country will not see any more Gezi uprising in Taksim, nor will it allow it.” Erdoğan also expressed himself again disparagingly about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people (LGBT). “LGBT, there is no such thing,” he said.

Erdoğan’s remarks refer to the Gezi protests of 2013, which were critical of the government. Actually, the president would actually play an uprising that he could easily get under control. In addition to a diversionary maneuver, the government could also increase state control over social networks and messenger services in the shadow of the protests. Two birds, one stone.

Split the opposition

But the student protests are not the only reason why Erdoğan’s power is more stable than it was in 2020. In the middle of last year the country was still discussing a split in the AKP. Well-known politicians like the former President Abdullah Gül, Ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan resigned and founded a new party. The AKP also faced a united opposition.

This has changed now. One of the president’s main opponents has also announced the establishment of its own political party. “I’m going a different way,” said Muharrem Ince. He had won 30.6 percent of the vote with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the 2018 presidential election.

Muharrem Ince leaves the CHP and founds a new party: This weakens the opposition in the country considerably.  (Source: AP / dpa)Muharrem İnce leaves the CHP and founds a new party: This considerably weakens the opposition in the country. (Source: AP / dpa)

The social democratic CHP, founded by state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had recently fallen out over the course of current chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Three former MPs left the party in January. Ince criticized the party leadership for its resistance to Turkish foreign policy in the region and against Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Nagorno-Karabakh campaign has thus divided the opposition. Ince indicated that he wanted to run again for the office of president. The next presidential elections in Turkey are due to take place in June 2023. That should cost the CHP, the second largest party in the country, important votes. The dominance of the AKP does not seem in danger at the moment.

However, there are still more than two years until the next election. For Erdoğan, a lot will depend on whether he and his government can get the economic crisis under control. However, that takes time – and daily news about the current predicament hardly helps. In any case, the Turkish President should be happy about new reports about his lunar adventure – even if they are accompanied by scorn and ridicule.

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