Turkey’s lira is swooning again — just in time for nationwide elections

Turkey’s voters head to the polls on Sunday amid new, widespread worries about their currency, and with much at stake for investors in the country.

Investor fears have roiled Turkey’s lira over the past 48 hours, sending shockwaves through the country of 80 million just days before nationwide local elections. Markets still remember Turkey’s currency crash last summer, which triggered a sell-off in emerging markets and sent investors running for the hills.

Results for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could determine the fate of monetary policy and the stability of markets in Turkey and beyond.

The lira dropped as much as 5 percent against the dollar Thursday on news that the Turkish Central Bank had burned through nearly a third of its foreign reserves in the first three weeks of March as it tried to prop up the currency and stifle short-sellers ahead of the vote.

This week, Turkey’s overnight swap rate skyrocketed to 1,200 percent as it tried to keep the lira from falling.

There would « absolutely » be a sell-off in Turkish markets « if AKP loses Istanbul or Ankara, » the country’s two biggest cities, said Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management. « The assumption has been that after elections, Erdogan normalizes policy. But if he loses elections, he will lose political capital to do that. »

Voters have a major concern at the top of their list: the economy.

Unemployment in Turkey is now around 13 percent, nearly a decade high, and inflation sat at 19.7 in February — though that’s the first time it’s dropped below 20 percent since August.

Consumers’ purchasing power has fallen. The pain is particularly acute for the many Turkish businesses that owe debts denominated in foreign currencies. The government has opened food stalls selling fruit and vegetables at below-market rates to help ease the inflation pain.

Erdogan enjoyed re-election to another five-year term in a power-consolidating victory last summer, but his ruling right-wing AKP faces new challenges in big cities as opposition parties blame him for the economy.

Local elections will see up to 57 million registered voters cast ballots for mayors and municipal leaders in 81 provinces. They are seen as a referendum on Erdogan himself.

Analysts who spoke to CNBC agreed that Erdogan is unlikely to suffer a big upset in this year’s voting. He has continuously held the post of either prime minister or president since 2003.

That said, opposition parties are working together more effectively than in the past, analysts say. For example, the People’s Democratic Party is opting out of several races in order to help candidates from a broader opposition bloc led by two others, the Republican People’s Party and the Good Party.

The closest contests, polls show, will be in Ankara and Istanbul, cities that Erdogan’s AKP has held for 25 years.

« If the AKP loses to an opposition party challenger, it will be a symbolic indication that the ruling party is struggling to maintain its appeal with the urban elite, » said Emily Hawthorne, an analyst at risk consulting firm Stratfor.

Agathe Demarais, principal Europe economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said she believes a defeat for AKP in Turkey’s political and commercial hubs is « unlikely at this point. »

But she said that if AKP loses Istanbul and Ankara, « financial markets would react negatively and the lira would depreciate sharply against the U.S. dollar and the euro, possibly triggering another currency crash. »

Meanwhile, Ash of Bluebay Asset Management sees a « high probability » that the AKP loses Ankara, putting the odds at 50-50. He estimated just a 30 percent chance that Erdogan’s party loses Istanbul.

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