A political battle has broken out in Turkey over Halk Ekmek (meaning ‘people’s bread’), pitting Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Extreme financial difficulties faced by many Turks in recent months has spurred a sharp rise in demand for a cheap brand of bread produced by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, resulting in huge lines forming in front of the kiosks where it is sold. However, the Turkish government is now being accused of trying to hinder the municipality’s efforts to increase the distribution network of this bread, amid fears that this could strengthen the Istanbul mayor’s political profile.
The price of bread in Istanbul rose by 20% last December: the cost of 200 grams of bread has gone up to 1.5 Turkish lira (0.17 euros) from 1.25 lira, and 240 grams cost 1.8 lira (0.20 euros) from of 1.5 lira.
This caused a surge in sales of a brand of bread produced in municipal-owned bakeries. Halk Ekmek bread weighs 250 grams and costs 1 Turkish lira (0.11 euros), or half the price of regular bread, a mainstay for poor families in Istanbul, a city of 18 million people.
“Do you think it’s easy for people to wait in line for hours to buy bread? In the 70s they lined up to buy gas; now, for the first time in our country, they have to wait to buy bread. It is a sad picture. And instead of dealing with the problem of poverty and the problems of the people, we are having to deal with obstacles, intentional and otherwise,” Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said recently.
According to Halk Ekmek, the company that produces the affordable bread, sales until November 2020 came to around 800,000 loaves a day. “Today, sales exceed 1.5 million. Demand is so huge, we need to reach 2.5 million loaves of bread per day,” said Ozgen Nama, deputy chairman of Halk Ekmek SA.
We visited one of the kiosks in the neighborhood Cihangir to buy a loaf. We waited in line with just two other people, since it was already noon and the morning rush was over. The bread was tasty, perhaps even better than that available in many bakeries. We asked the two other customers why they didn’t shop somewhere without lines and they answered: “Out of necessity, because it’s cheaper.”
To meet rising demand, Imamoglu decided to expand the Halk Ekmek sales network with 142 additional kiosks throughout Istanbul. His proposal, however, was voted down twice at the municipal council, which is controlled by the governing AKP-MHP coalition. According to Turkish media, refusal to approve the plan was a political decision by the governing coalition, aimed at preventing Imamoglu from appearing as though he is helping the city’s poor.
The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality responded by renting 40 vans so it could sell Halk Ekmek bread in 350 neighborhoods, bypassing the municipal council barrier. Just a few days later, however, another obstacle appeared, this time from the Turkish Agriculture Ministry, which banned the “sale of bread outdoors.”
“This clearly targeted the municipality’s efforts to sell bread,” members of the municipal council from Imamoglu’s side said.
The popular reaction was just as intense as that from much of the Turkish media. The municipality also expressed its determination not to be intimidated, with spokesman Murat Ongun saying: “Our fellow citizens should not worry. If necessary, we will distribute the bread door-to-door.”
A few days later, the Turkish Agriculture Ministry claimed that the decree was designed only to prevent the open-air sale of homemade bread, but political analysts considered the clarification a retreat by the government after the reactions, and especially from poorer Istanbulians.
“The Agriculture Ministry is no longer an obstacle. But as far as bread and the poor are concerned, no obstacle will stop us and we want all our fellow citizens to know that,” said Imamoglu.
A third obstacle from the AKP-controlled local municipality followed in the suburb of Sancaktepe, where municipal crews pulled down a Halk Ekmek kiosk on the pretext that its license was not in order. The Metropolitan Municipality immediately set up another outlet, right beside a bus stop.
An initiative of the Istanbul municipal authority, Halk Ekmek bread has been produced since 1977. From 1994 until 2019, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of the city, it was also sold at low prices to help feed the poor. Now the municipality has passed into the hands of the opposition. With rising unemployment, successive hikes in the cost of basic goods – eggs have gone up 100%, sunflower oil 110% and bread 20% – and wages inching up just 5-8%, the combination of growing poverty and surging bread sales is having a positive impact on the popularity of the Istanbul mayor, something Erdogan’s staff is having trouble accepting.
Sozcu newspaper recently reported that the average low-income household buys eight loaves of bread a day. The difference in cost between Halak Ekmek and the bread from other bakeries can cover households’ electricity or gas bills. City officials say there are people who walk as many as 5 kilometers every day just to get affordable bread.
Bread is such an important symbol of the working class in Turkey, that even Erdogan’s coalition partner, Devlet Bahceli, made it the subject of a campaign in 2020: “Every rich man in the country should go to their nearest bakery, buy some bread and hang it outside for the poor. No one should sleep while their neighbor goes hungry”, he said. Stands of bread started appearing across the country soon after.
Political analysts estimate that as the economic crisis in Turkey intensifies, so will the battle between Imamoglu and Erdogan. They also believe that this sense of competition prompted the Turkish president to change the international agenda, labeling the West – and French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in particular – as “external enemies” in order to divert people’s attention from the challenges of everyday life. He has even promised space travel because he cannot promise an economic recovery, the analysts quip.
Earlier this month, meanwhile, the Turkish president rebuked the United States over its “lukewarm” response to the killing of 13 Turks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “You were supposedly not backing PKK, YPG and PYD! You are clearly by their side and you support them,” he said in a speech to party’s supporters, referring to Washington.
On Friday, meanwhile, Turkish government spokesman Omer Celik launched a fierce attack against Athens. “The statements made by the Greek foreign minister are not reminiscent of friendship and create hostility against Turkey within the Philia forum,” he said in reference to a regional forum held in Athens the previous week.
“If Greece and the Greek Cypriots dream that they will materialize their maximalist positions, siding with countries that have their own agenda against Turkey, we guarantee that these dreams will turn into a nightmare,” Celik added.
It is in such a fraught climate that Erdogan reiterated his space travel ambitions last week. “Scientists and researchers from many countries value and admire our vision, but the opposition says it is a space fairy tale! They are being petty. Believe me, we are just a few steps from reaching the goal of traveling to the moon and sending a Turk into space,” he said.
Erdogan’s political opponents, however, emphasize that it is bread and economic prosperity that bring votes, not “space travel” or “foreign enemies.” They remind that the Turkish president came to power in 2002 after a successful term at the helm of the Istanbul municipality, where he also helped Turks living in poverty.