ISTANBUL - Grocery shoppers in Turkey looking for a bargain were able to buy vegetables at unbeatable prices this week from an unexpected source: the local government.
Turkish authorities have started setting up their own vegetable stands in a bid to force markets to lower food prices as the country struggles with persistently high inflation.
But while shoppers have flocked to the stands, the country’s opposition has accused the government of attempting to curry favor ahead of local elections next month by feeding into popular anger over rising food prices.
Local officials in Istanbul, surrounded by sacks of potatoes and onions, sold vegetables to customers who had queued for hours after the city’s metropolitan municipality set up the first stands on Monday.
More than 50 stalls will be up and running next week, selling vegetables two to three times cheaper than supermarkets, the Istanbul municipality said.
A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes costs three Turkish lira (57 cents) at the government stands, while a kilo of potatoes or onions costs two lira.
Sales are capped at 3 kg per person per vegetable.
When housewife Betul Sonmez heard about the initiative, she rushed to the big tent put up by the municipality in the district of Besiktas on the European side of Istanbul.
The 50-year-old left with bags full of potatoes, onions and tomatoes that cost her a total of 20 lira.
“I would have paid around 50 liras for this in a supermarket,” she said. “How can we get by at that price?”
The initiative in Istanbul, as well as in the capital Ankara where 15 stands will be set up, is part of the government’s effort to curb inflation, which has reached record levels in the past few months.
The food sector has been hit particularly hard, with prices increasing by 6.43 percent in January compared with the previous month — after skyrocketing by 30.97 percent last year — according to recently released official figures.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared war on what he has called “food price terrorism,” accusing retailers of selling products at unreasonable prices.
And he does not plan to stop at vegetables.
“From cleaning products to whatever else they have on supermarket shelves, we will start to sell them,” he promised during a rally for local elections to be held on March 31.
Many Turks, like Erdogan and pro-government media, accuse retailers of pushing prices up because of greed.
“Now they are going to be stuck with the vegetables which will rot in their hands,” retiree Hasan said as he lined up for the stand in Besiktas.
But the stands have also been the subject of sharp criticism.
Turkey’s main opposition parties say Erdogan is scapegoating retailers for his own inability to control inflation, and forcing municipalities to sell vegetables at a loss, using public money to cover the losses.
“Why are they doing it now? Because there will be elections soon,” said Besiktas resident Kiymet Erdumlu in front of the municipality’s stall.
Seracettin Suyu, who runs a market stall in Istanbul’s Sisli district, said the purpose of the push was “to accuse us, to make us enemies … it’s not ethical, it’s a disgrace.
The 42-year-old trader said the high prices were due to bad weather conditions in southern Turkey in recent weeks, as well as increased costs of production.
“Lower these costs, such as fuel, and then we can lower our prices,” he said.
But for now, Suyu is not worried and continues to sell his tomatoes for 8 lira a kilo. “There is one month until the elections. After that, they will move on to something else.”
With 300 tons of vegetables sold in Istanbul on Monday, according to the municipality, the stands are a success — and seem to have already had an impact on supermarkets.
Some of the major supermarket chains operating in Turkey, such as Migros and Carrefour, have dropped the prices of some vegetables to bring them in line with those of the municipality’s stands, the Hurriyet newspaper reported Wednesday.
The paper said the chains were also setting a cap of three kilos per product.
In a Migros store in Nisantasi, a posh Istanbul neighborhood, a kilo of tomatoes has been sold for three lira since Tuesday.
“Tayyip’s tomatoes have arrived here!” one customer said, to laughter in the shop.