New challenges behind new generation
Coming from an underprivileged background and having witnessed and probably lived firsthand the hardships ordinary citizens have faced in poorly equipped hospitals and schools, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who headed the government from 2002 as prime minister gave special emphasis to health care, easy access to housing credits and improvement of infrastructure in poorer urban districts. Schools were renovated, and books were distributed for free in schools.
Thanks to the favorable conditions in the international conjuncture, the Turkish economy grew by an average rate of 7.5 percent annually between 2002 and 2011. Lower inflation and interest rates led to a major increase in domestic consumption.
There is no doubt that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments have uplifted the poorer parts of the society, towards the upper echelons. As a result, by the mid-2010s, a significant segment among the pious and conservatives was added to the middle class in Turkey.
The luckiest ones have joined the upper-middle class. Some of them even fast-tracked their way up into several national and local governmental and administrative positions. Currently, that segment of nouveau rich does not have much to complain about.
But the last decade’s newcomers to the middle class not only have stagnated in terms of their income but worse, have started to see erosion in their economic and social gains.
The older generations in that segment remain loyal supporters of the AKP, as they vividly recall the hardships of the past. But the situation is more complex for the younger generations of conservatives and those 50 years old and less, in their mid-careers.
Once they had a taste of proper national services, they do not want to settle for less. In 2017, the then Health Minister Recep Akdağ told me that those patients, who in the past used to share their hospital rooms with six other people after waiting six months for an operation before the AKP came to power, were complaining of not having an appointment for an operation date within days and not having an individual room with TV sets and all for just themselves.
The gap between poor and rich conservatives
The second problem with these segments is that they see the gap between themselves and the conservative upper middle classes widen more and more each day. And not all think that those in the upper-middle classes are increasing their wealth through hard work.
The third problem, however, should be even more worrying for the ruling elites. The newcomers’ social and economic gains are melting down. The youth unemployment has reached a record 28 percent this year, while education – but one that increases employment opportunities - remains a problem.
The Turkish president keeps announcing with pride that dozens of universities have opened throughout Turkey. The underlying message here is to show that the government has given special importance to open universities in less developed cities in Anatolia.
While conservative segments appreciated the increasing numbers of universities, they are realizing that being a graduate of a university no longer guarantees a job.
In addition to the recent hardships of the middle classes, there are alarming figures coming from the least advantageous part of the society.
The 2018 Turkey Demographic and Health Survey conducted by Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies includes figures that would make the ruling classes happy, like the case of childbirths taking place at a health facility.
Institutional deliveries are almost universal in Turkey, with 99 percent of live births in the five years preceding the survey delivered in a health facility, according to the survey released on Nov. 8. This clearly is the success of the universal health coverage endorsed by the government.
But the survey also includes worrying figures.
Among children under age 5, 6 percent of them are short for their age, 2 percent are thin and 2 percent are underweight, all indicators of malnutrition, and that makes 10 percent for children under age 5.
That means the state succeeded in having nearly all babies to be born in a health facility but failed to secure that all are well fed.
The ruling elites can only go so far in telling their supporters to make sacrifices as it is fighting with an existential security threat in Syria, which is draining Turkey’s financial resources.
Despite all efforts from government circles to curb negative news, conservative middle classes in dire straits have access to information on how certain national and local sources are being wasted or how conservative nouveau rich are getting richer and richer.
So, the main challenge for Turkey’s ruling elites is not the 50 percent in the opposition camp. It is the pro-government 50 percent whose loyalty is cracking fast due to economic hardships.