Istanbul mayor, gov’t at loggerheads over city’s cheap bread programme

An initiative by the Istanbul  municipality to provide affordable bread to residents of Turkey’s most populous city is at the heart of a political tug-of-war between the opposition on the side and the government and producers on the other.

The city is seeing long queues in front of the İstanbul Halk Ekmek A.Ş. kiosks set up throughout the city amid soaring inflation that has spiked food prices.

Food price inflation in the country has surged to six-year highs this year, led by corn, rice and wheat.

While the programme for Halk Ekmek’s cheaper bread - half the price of regular shops - is welcomed by the city’s some 16 million residents, producers and the government are accusing Istanbul’s opposition mayor of creating unfair competition and using the initiative for political gain.

The Istanbul Bread Producers Association has questioned the sincerity of Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in his efforts to provide cheap or free bread to those in need and has submitted a petition to the Istanbul Governor’s Office.

“Handing out free bread to citizens in neighbourhoods and alleyways is not the way to go in providing services to citizens through bread,’’ Sözcü newspaper cited the petition as saying on Monday.

Pointing out that there are 3,000 bakeries in Istanbul, the association said a majority of them already have a practice of providing free bread to those who need it. 

The soaring demand for the staple item led İmamoğlu in recent months to push for over 140 more Halk Ekmek kiosks in the city, a proposal that was downvoted twice at the municipal council, controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and coalition partner far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). 

The municipality responded by distributing bread via rented vans, a short-lived project due to the subsequent sales ban of bread “outdoors’’ by the Turkish Agriculture Ministry.

The council last month eventually agreed to the kiosks, but placed harsh stipulations on who would qualify for the cheaper bread, news site Gazete Duvar reported.

Meanwhile, bread sales at Halk Ekmek have soared from around 800,000 loaves a day in November to 2.5 million loaves of bread, Özgen Nama, deputy chairman of Halk Ekmek, told Sözcü newspaper on Jan. 25.

Meanwhile, İmamoğlu has vowed to push forth and expand the project.

 “We would like to announced to Istanbulites that we will recognize no barrier in our bread mission and fighting poverty,’’ Cumhuriyet newspaper cited İmamoğlu as saying last month

The Halk Ekmek project dates back to 1977. The project maintained a successful run during Erdoğan’s time as mayor of Istanbul  between 1994-1998 and has been overseen by the main opposition party since İmamoğlu’s election in 2019.