ISTANBUL — On the single worst day in the collapse of the Turkish lira, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived late in the evening in a small town, stepped up on the runner of his car, tapped the microphone and delivered, impromptu, one of his most memorable speeches — an appeal to national and religious pride in the face of foreign aggression.
“They are now having various campaigns,” he said, referring to the financial sanctions imposed by the United States against Turkey this month. “You do not lend an ear to those. Don’t forget, they have the dollar, but we have our people, our Allah.”
Since his re-election in June to a newly powerful presidency, Mr. Erdogan has become, more than ever, the dominant government communicator to Turkey’s 81 million people. After 15 years in power, the president still tours the country tirelessly, holding party meetings, cutting ribbons and, most important, giving speeches to approving crowds — three per day on average, most of them broadcast live on multiple news channels.
Economists say that Turkey’s economic crisis has been caused primarily by Mr. Erdogan’s mismanagement — unsustainable borrowing, cronyism and huge public works projects with little economic return — and now, he carries almost single-handedly the burden of steadying the nation. Mr. Erdogan may not have solutions for his nation’s troubles, but so far he has deflected blame, relying on nationalism, resentment of the West, his firm grip on the country’s news media and his own formidable popularity and political skills.
By imposing sanctions and publicly assailing Turkey, Mr. Trump may actually be helping Mr. Erdogan domestically, giving him grounds to appeal to national pride as he stands up to a superpower. Mr. Erdogan has spoken of “economic war” being waged against his country, and argued in a recent opinion article in The New York Times that the United States had “failed to understand and respect” Turkish concerns, but added, “Turkey does not respond to threats.”
Abdullatif Sener, a former deputy prime minister to Mr. Erdogan who is now an opposition member of Parliament, said, “the entire Turkish public now thinks that the cause of the economic crisis is Trump’s attack on Turkey, and this is strengthening Erdogan.”
Berat Albayrak, Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law who was appointed last month to the newly combined Treasury and Finance Ministry, is a useful sidekick to the president, appearing on television daily, bounding up steps to attend meetings and stalking across conference stages, giving PowerPoint presentations.
But it is Mr. Erdogan whom millions of Turks love. He won 52.6 percent of the vote in June, 22 percentage points ahead of his main challenger.
At every venue, people press forward to greet him and to take photos with him. The scenes are carefully choreographed amid heavy security — snipers take up positions on the rooftops and a Black Hawk helicopter circles above — yet the people’s enthusiasm is sincere.
“You stand upright, do not bow your head, this nation is with you,” the crowd chanted to him on Aug. 10 in the town of Guneysu, in Mr. Erdogan’s ancestral province, Rize, which hugs the Black Sea coast in northeastern Turkey. The province gave him his highest vote in the election, a resounding 82 percent.
That day, the lira fell 13 percent against the dollar to a record low, and it continued to drop on Monday before rebounding. The currency has lost almost 40 percent of its value since mid-February, driving prices sharply higher in Turkey.
But Mr. Erdogan promised that the country would pull through.
“We have worked hard, and we are working hard,” he told them. “Where were we 16 years ago, and now where are we? We will be better.”
Mr. Erdogan has for years struck a chord with the working-class, conservative base of Turkish society, talking to its members in their own vernacular and addressing people simply and affectionately, as if they were family. His supporters often say they like him because he is one of them, a poor boy made good.
He stirs them with historical and religious references, offering to restore Turkey to the glory of the Ottoman Empire. He frames the economic crisis as “them” against “us,” a national struggle comparable to Turkey’s war of independence against Western colonialist powers a century ago.
“They didn’t leave a thing undone to make our country kneel down,” he said, harking back to the Allied occupation of parts of the Ottoman Empire, in a speech the same day in Bayburt, another northeastern town. “They demolished the enormous Ottoman sycamore with thousands of types of traps, tricks and alliances.”
“The sapling of the Republic that our nation gave life to with enormous sacrifices now again is on the way to becoming a sycamore,” he added. “They tried to paralyze our democracy with coups, memorandums.”
He praised Bayburt, “an ancient city with its plain, castle, river and mountains, and most importantly with its people with iron ankles but hearts soft as cotton,” who knew the importance of independence because the city “during the Ottoman period tasted both captivity and freedom.”
A few days later, he told members of his Justice and Development Party that the West could not stomach Turkey’s progress under his rule.
“There is an obvious economic attack against Turkey,” he said. “We need to keep our political stance firm since this economic attack is not related to our real economic state; there are other intentions behind it.”
“We have made a big leap in the economy with 3.5 percent growth in the last 16 years,” he said. “It is understandable that some people are uncomfortable with this.”
The West also could not bear the enduring popularity of his Islamist government, he said: “The biggest change we brought was to reconcile the relationship between the state and the people. They are having a hard time digesting that our country has more strength than the distance we covered in the economy.”
Mr. Erdogan was badly shaken by an attempted coup against him in 2016, and has become bitterly resentful of the United States for not showing him greater support at the time, said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
His supporters came out in droves and faced down tanks in the streets on the night of the coup attempt, but 250 people were killed in the clashes, including Mr. Erdogan’s campaign manager, one of his closest friends.
Mr. Erdogan has accused the United States-based cleric Fethullah Gulen of being behind the failed coup — which Mr. Gulen denies — and clings to the suspicion that the American government was seeking to remove him from power.
“The Turkish establishment — and certainly Erdogan — still suspect the U.S. had a role in it,” Ms. Aydintasbas said. “There are people in the West, and also in D.C., who wouldn’t have minded if the coup had succeeded.”
Mr. Erdogan used the failed coup as an opportunity to move against his political opponents, imprisoning more than 100,000 people, and to turn the country against Gulenists, the West and the United States in particular.
In a similar manner, he has used the recent United States sanctions, and in particular President Trump’s disparaging remarks about Turkey on Twitter, to whip up nationalist sentiment. Mr. Trump imposed the sanctions for Turkey’s refusal to release an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was jailed and accused of terrorism in the wake of the coup attempt. On Friday, Mr. Brunson, who is under house arrest, lost the latest in a series of appeals for his release.
Even Turkey’s main opposition parties signed a joint statement to condemn Washington’s sanctions rather than criticize Mr. Erdogan.
“As we didn’t surrender to the coup makers, and stood against the tanks with our bare hands, we will not surrender to the economic hit men,” Mr. Erdogan said. “We will struggle with all we have.”
Mr. Erdogan’s supporters show no sign of wavering, and in his weekend visit to the northeast, he thanked them warmly and appealed for their help in propping up the lira.
“Come on, and exchange your dollars, euros and gold, if it exists under your pillows, for local currency, and let’s give the best answer to them as a nation,” he urged. “Are you in?”
As members of the crowd chanted back, “We are in!” he commended them.
“This togetherness,” he said, “that will be the best answer to the West.”
Read more here: NYT > Worldhappy wheels
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