Turkish opposition to boost services and demand extra coronavirus measures

With the number of coronavirus cases in Turkey mounting by the day, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has put together its own package of measures to safeguard the economy after those announced last week by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led to widespread disappointment.

The main part of Erdoğan’s $15.5-billion “Economic Stability Shield” announced on March 18 comprised a three to six-month suspension of tax, social security and credit payments. The president revealed 19 out of the package’s 21 articles during a live broadcast. He refrained from announcing the remaining two – according to some commentators, because even he did not believe they could realistically tackle the problems at hand.

One of those measures promised to create alternative supply sources for Turkey’s retail and manufacturing sectors in case of disruption to the global supply chain, while the other vowed to allocate periodic welfare and social services at home for Turks over 80-years-old who live alone.

The package does not contain any tangible financial support for citizens, and with the country’s coffers drained by more than a year of drastic measures to keep the economy afloat during an election in 2019 and a major currency crisis the year before, it is not clear how the measures it promises will be financed.

Despite its spending, the government still lost the majority of major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, in the local elections last year. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is expected to announce its own comprehensive support packages, including the provision of health and social aid, food and services, through its 11 largest municipalities on Monday.

Last week, while municipalities run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) raised water prices,  the CHP’s municipalities ordered water companies to continue providing water to those whose services had been cut due to unpaid bills. Soon after this, the Environment and Urban Planning Ministry ordered water companies across the country to do the same.

Now Kılıçdaroğlu is looking to lead the way on the coronavirus, both by mobilising his party’s municipalities and by presenting a list of measures to be taken for the good of the public.

The list includes comprehensive steps to protect people and businesses, starting with a pledge to reduce and postpone payment of telephone and utility bills for office, manufacturing and agricultural businesses, also offering them VAT exemptions.

The package also demands the country’s 193,000 contracted teachers continue to receive their wages while schools are closed, as well as benefits and overtime payments for health workers.

Another recommendation on Kılıçdaroğlu’s list is for the return to work of health workers who were among the tens of thousands dismissed from their jobs by emergency decree after the failed coup attempt in 2016, and for the thousands of doctors, nurses and lab workers awaiting the mandatory security checks imposed on public workers since then to be fast tracked.

The CHP will demand food and cleaning products be made VAT-free and for the government to offer discounts and tax reductions on fuel. Pensioners will receive a boost of 1,000 ($152) liras per month for three months, according to the CHP’s plans.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s party is also set to demand additional assistance both for unemployed workers and for companies that the virus has forced to close shop.

Their plan would lift a requirement that unemployment benefit claimants must have paid their premiums for 600 days out of the last three years, and would demand six months of minimum wage payments ($354) for everyone registered for unemployment benefits. It also calls on the government to make a daily cash payment of 250 liras ($38) to support the 149,000 small businesses that the pandemic has forced to shut.

On top of this, the party will demand that the government protects people’s jobs by banning dismissals and unpaid leave throughout the crisis and offering businesses a 50 percent contribution to the wages of staff who are unable to work, with employers paying the balance.

With families facing potentially devastating consequences from the virus, the CHP will also call for parliament to fast track a new draft law that guarantees social services and free healthcare for all families, as well as securing minimum wage payments for unemployed parents.

Besides this, the party is set to propose a measure to ensure free treatment at all public-private hospitals, as well as asking for contribution charges for prescription medicine and physical examinations to be waived for workers and retirees.

Kılıçdaroğlu had already called for a one-year suspension of Treasury payments to contractors who undertook infrastructure projects under the public-private partnership model, which guarantees companies running these projects a certain level of income indexed to foreign currencies.

The CHP leader will propose that the 18.8 billion liras earmarked for payments to these contractors in this year’s budget is instead put toward the party’s list of measures to protect the economy more broadly and tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.