Do authoritarian regimes manage pandemics better than democratic ones? This question is triggered by the initial records of the global fight against the pandemic, which suggest that some non-democratic regimes have been able to mobilize the resources for a mass-lockdown at a faster pace. But not all autocrats prioritize public health even during a pandemic. Bolsonaro, for example, has simply ignored reality by participating in anti-quarantine rallies. Orbán, on the other hand, has seized the opportunity to grab emergency powers.
Erdoğan of Turkey was already equipped with extensive powers to exhibit his one-man-show. Even though the two years long post-putsch state of emergency formally ended in July 2018, most of the emergency regulations were codified in a way that essentially kept the country in a perpetual state of emergency well before the current public health crisis. Thus, Erdoğan did not even need to issue another state of emergency during the pandemic. Nonetheless, he did not pass up this chance to assume new executive powers and create new resources for his crony business circles by issuing new zoning schemes to open the national parks for real estate development.
In other words, Erdoğan has used this pandemic as a political opportunity just as he always does with any kind of social, political, or economic crisis. In fact, Erdoğan uses and often creates crises of all sorts to divert public attention from, among other issues, the economic decline since the mid-2010s, political polarization, and the Kurdish question. He succeeds in manipulating public opinion with this style of “crisis management” with a simple method: he bets on political futures, pointing to important future events (election, referendum, military operation, etc.) and creating a false sense of competition between him and his opponents. Each time, people believe that things might change.
However, with the pandemic, he faces a different type of crisis which he did not create but which he underestimated. The way in which Erdoğan has tackled this ordeal offers new insights about his style of crisis management. Here, I outline the logic behind the measures Erdoğan’s government has taken to tackle the crisis. I argue that he has a two-pronged strategy. The first component is to keep the economy moving no matter what. The second component is to not only distort reality in order to cover up the public health failure in the country but also attack the few critical voices left in the country as the new enemies of the state.
The first response to the pandemic was to declare an economic package in late March. Adopted on April 17, this initial policy was designed to keep the economy alive. Instead of supporting households that suffered because of a slowdown in production and the lock down, this meager package favored employers. It included measures that gave the employers financial incentives and leverage to urge workers to take indefinite unpaid leave with the new state-sponsored emergency unemployment funds. Rather than mobilizing state funds to provide extensive support to those in need, the government asked for donations from the citizens.
A curfew for those under 20 and over 65 years of age later became effective, and more expansive curfews for weekends were applied in major cities. However, many factories and construction workers, regardless of their age, were exempted. These measures sought to achieve not “herd immunity” but “class immunity.”
Like in other authoritarian regimes, the accuracy of Turkey’s official figures were challenged. The Turkish Medical Association has argued that because Turkey does not comply with the WHO guidelines in coding the diagnosis and mortality classifications the Covid-19 cases have been undercounted. Even though the government announced that there was a decline in the number of fatalities and hospitalizations, Turkey still ranked seventh worldwide in the number of confirmed cases by the end of April. Underreporting the fatalities or misreporting the cause of deaths and a decreasing number of tests likely account for this apparent success. Despite the lack of compelling evidence, Erdoğan and his media outlets have represented Turkey’s pandemic response as a success story to justify an early push for “normalization” of the economy and gradual lifting of restrictive lockdowns.
The normalization process began with the reopening of malls and hairdressers by May 11. Despite the warnings of public health experts about increased threats of infections in closed spaces, this prioritization of reopening malls raised questions about the affiliation of owners and constructors of the largest shopping malls in Turkey with the government. It is debatable whether reopening of the malls would help reignite consumption and keep businesses afloat given the shrinking economy. However, malls could symbolically showcase the government’s success in normalization. Over the last two decades, malls, owing to the government’s efforts to restrict public gatherings and a construction boom, have emerged as the major venues of socializing, supplanting the public spaces in Turkey. In big cities, there are less and less recreational outdoor places so malls provide the only alternative for leisure activities. Visiting malls could insinuate a feeling of normalcy.
In fact, Erdoğan saw an opportunity in this global crisis. If the economy kept going, even at the expense of lives, then Turkey’s exports could outgrow that of its competitors’ amidst this turmoil and help stall its currency account deficit. However, the Turkish economy depends on foreign capital inflows and as the Turkish currency lost twenty percent against the US dollar just within the last three months, Erdoğan’s crude opportunism did not seem to work this time.
Unsurprisingly, those who publicly impugn the strength of the economy are persecuted. Reporting on the free fall of the Turkish Lira or criticizing the performance of the Minister of Treasury and Finance, who happens to be Erdoğan’s son in law, on social media are sufficient to make one subject to investigation and arrest. Criminalization of even remotely dissident voices in social media is now the new normal. The government calls this a fight against “perception operations,” and immediately investigates social media posts that allegedly “stir unrest” by being critical of the government. When a truck driver put up a now viral online video complaining that he cannot afford to stay at home in the early days of selective lockdown orders, he was detained.
This brings me to my second point about how Erdoğan and his circles have addressed the corona fallout. Instead of fighting the pandemic, Erdoğan has been fighting his usual political battles. The pandemic has not halted Turkish military involvement in Libya and its incursion in Northeastern Syria. Turkey affiliated mercenaries are destroying or blocking the water wells in the Kurdish region in Syria, which are much needed amid the coronavirus crisis. This is a blatant war crime. This tells how much the government cares about public health as borders are porous to the virus.
In domestic politics, Erdoğan’s crackdown on the opposition has continued. The very limited room for the democratic opposition’s possibilities to organize and act have been further eroded by the emergency measures. Meetings of professional chambers and civil society associations, most of which are heroically struggling to oppose and expose the government policies are banned, even when they are online.
The attack on the Kurdish politics did not stop either, and Turkey has effectively maintained the differential treatment of Kurdish regions with a separate emergency rule. Turkish government continues its policy to remove the elected Kurdish mayors, to arrest them, and to replace those positions with appointed governors. The pro-Kurdish party lost the majority of its elected local positions in this process while Kurdish politicians at all levels continue to be imprisoned.
Turkey’s prisons are already overpopulated with political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and politicians either serving sentences or in pre-trial imprisonment under anti-terrorism laws that target basic human rights and freedom of speech. As part of the pandemic measures, a general amnesty law is now releasing around 90,000 inmates out of 300,000 people behind bars, including infamous mafia leaders linked to the government, while excluding political prisoners who were jailed arbitrarily. Using the pandemic as an excuse, political authorities are denying these political prisoners’ access to their lawyers.
To manipulate public opinion, Erdoğan has reverted to his usual tactics: blaming others to cover up for his failures. According to him, it is the opposition parties, the LGBTQI community, or the “coup-plotters” that have cast a dark cloud over Turkey’s success against the pandemic. To supplement this, he has tried to stage Turkish goodwill by extensively advertising Turkey’s aid of medical equipment to help the United States. In a similar vein, the repatriation of a Turkish citizen, who was allegedly denied coronavirus treatment in Sweden, was broadcasted with an emphasis on the special ambulance plane in which he was brought in. Not a day has gone by without the Turkish media mentioning how coup-plotters are conspiring against the government or speculating how terrible things would be if the main opposition party were in power. Meanwhile access to healthcare in Turkey has been limited even for severe cases.
The President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which sets the government’s official view on Sunni Islam, announced that homosexuality invites the virus. When homeschooled children were given an assignment to hang rainbow drawings on their windows, Erdoğan condemned and forbade this homework arguing that this was an attempt by the LGBTQI community to recruit children. Although Turkey’s already notorious record on domestic violence rose under lockdown, the Istanbul Convention, which aims to prevent and combat violence against women, was targeted by the government and its supporters who called for Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention. As human rights defenders urge the government to implement the Convention, government supporters are trying to justify a possible withdrawal by pointing to the Hungarian Parliament blocking the treaty.
Furthermore, the Turkish police continued to attack peaceful protestors clearly flouting social distancing rules. May Day demonstrators, including union leaders were harshly detained. Environmental activists protesting the mining activities in Kazdaglari were attacked by the police. Moreover, police and the night watchmen abuse their powers patrolling the curfews. A Syrian refugee child was openly shot dead by the police because he allegedly did not abide by the warnings. Another video in social media showed police firing at Kurdish children who were playing outside. Funerals for two members of a political music band Group Yorum, who had tragically died after a year of hunger strike protesting the effective ban on their concerts and the imprisonment of others members of the band, were attacked by the police. Detained participants at the funeral were ticketed for not abiding by the social distancing rules.
To conclude, it is very likely that autocrats will be reluctant to relinquish their emergency powers even if this crisis is averted. Erdoğan’s early push for normalization is accompanied by his dream of normalizing his rule in a party-state. The absurdities of the Turkish regime have been internalized not only by his supporters but also by the electoral base of the opposition parties. With the pressure on the little remaining independent media, and without any freedom of speech in the academia, the public has been manipulated to believe that Turkey is outperforming the rest of the world in its fight against the pandemic. However, autocrats are never as powerful as they seem. Could this pandemic open up some possibilities? Since this is not a crisis premeditated by those in power, progressives have a unique opportunity to expose the inefficiencies of this regime.
Nazan Bedirhanoglu works at Wellesley College where she teaches courses on international political economy and the Middle East. She is a fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium and an Academic for Peace. She was expelled from Ankara University because she was a signatory of the Peace Petition that condemns the Turkish government’s atrocities against the Kurdish civilians.
This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.