Turkey has entered its second month since the first case of the coronavirus was diagnosed on March 10th until May 5th. The number of reported cases reached approximately 130,000 which places Turkey among the first eight countries that are grappling with the deadly disease even it overtook China and Iran in relation to the number of cases according to an analysis of the American National Interest Magazine.
So far, Turkey's response has been marked by tension between a science-based approach, represented by the Minister of Health Faherttin Koca and the method that Erdogan's political priorities have formed, perpetuating his individual rule by saving the economy and maintaining his conservative religious base.
As the country comes out of the closure, Erdogan's policies and words indicate that the country should expect more of the same authoritarian policy, and it is doubtful that this will help in resolving the continuing economic and political problems in Turkey that have been exacerbated by the epidemic.
Treating the virus on the Turkish style
With the outbreak of the virus in China, many people in Turkey believed that it would not be affected by the spread of the virus. Until mid-March, the Turkish president expected economic gains for Turkey emerging from the crisis, but what happened two weeks later is that Erdogan did not mention in the address to the nation that the country can recover from the crisis in two to three weeks.
On the other hand, Koca adopted a more realistic and science-based approach, as he established an advisory committee composed of medical experts and scientists, and chose to be relatively transparent by holding daily press conferences and sharing data on the path of infection.
In sharp contrast to Erdogan's own approach, the smoother and much less divided method of communication was praised, and this helped him gain the confidence needed to persuade the public to comply with the ever-increasing government measures ranging from social exclusion, the closure of public spaces and the travel ban, and ultimately the curfew in a recent public opinion poll.
Two priorities h have been determined in depth for the president; the adoption and implementation of the necessary measures to keep the virus out and then his defeat in Turkey. The urgent need to maintain his religious base has led to hesitation regarding the isolation of pilgrims returning from Mecca after the travel ban imposed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and preventing access to holy places due to detection of coronavirus cases.
Just as maintaining the operating economy is represented by a source of great concern to Erdogan, as was for leaders around the world. In summer 2018, the Turkish economy entered into a recession characterized by negative growth rates, increasing unemployment, and high inflation, especially in basic agricultural products before the crucial local elections in March 2019.
The continuing problems such as continuous currency weakness, high debt, diminishing foreign reserves, and increasing unemployment threaten to destroy the Turkish economy. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the economy may shrink by 5%, unemployment may reach more than 17% by the end of the year, and the travel ban and the contraction in international trade affect the revenues of Turkish tourism and exports strongly, which are important engines of employment and economic growth. This image left Erdogan facing a dilemma between saving lives and saving the economy.
The tension between the two (saving the lives or saving the economy) has become another source of inconsistent and partial measures whose initial response marked by the epidemic on March 18th in stark contrast as he called people to stay at home, avoiding travel while announcing a significant reduction in taxes on air travel and the hotel industry to stimulate business at the same time.
This apparent tension on the need to prevent the spread of the virus by implementing stricter isolation measures while keeping the economy open has reached its climax on April 12th with the resignation of the Interior Minister Suleiman Soylo.
Erdogan rejected the resignation of Soylo, which pleased his supporters who celebrated the decision on the streets of Istanbul in defiance of measures of social exclusion. After that, the government announced the curfew in only 31 provinces on weekends and holidays.
Everything about the political survival
The presidential system of government that Erdogan established in 2014 and formalized it in 2018 made all power central, eroding the traditional checks and balances associated with democratic governance, while the coronary virus exacerbates the government and economic problems in Turkey. There are three distinct developments that betray Erdogan's efforts to further strengthen his individual rule.
One of the important results of Erdogan's increasing tyranny and centralization of power has been the weakening of Turkish institutions, while the Turkish government agencies have already been significantly weakened. The Corona crisis has revealed how professional organizations have also suffered.
The crackdown of criticism and opposition has continue in recent weeks, as detaining critics and opposition figures for a long time has become a distinctive aspect of Turkish presidential rule.
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates in Istanbul and other major cities lost municipal elections last year, Erdogan has systematically undermined their efforts to fight the coronavirus.
At the same time, Erdogan has used the need to alleviate the overcrowded prisons in Turkey to prevent the spread of the virus to strengthen his alliance with his partner in the extremist Nationalist Coalition Dolat Bahceli and the National Labor Party, which has become a necessary ally to gain the 50 + 1 percent necessary to win the presidential elections.
The Parliament adopted the partial amnesty law, which the National Labor Party has long desired in early April, and the law allows the release of ninety thousand convicts of criminal offenses while continuing to keep nearly fifty thousand prisoners, including Othman Kavala and Salahuddin Demirtaş on loose terrorist charges.
The Economist recently published an article saying that autocrats use Corona to seize power, but for Erdogan, preventing the coronavirus from undermining his individual rule and anticipating future challenges have more significance. Therefore, these goals make Erdogan's approach seem fragmented and gradual compared to that adopted by other countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan.
However, his dealing with the crisis has obtained nearly 56% of the public’s approval so far, an increase of more than 15 points. If his new plans to open the country go smoothly and the re-emergence of the virus is prevented, it is likely that this support increases, which could provide Erdogan the support he needs to consolidate his rule.
Going forward, it is difficult to see how Turkey will be able to recover from the massive losses caused by the coronavirus to the country, the economic problems and the deep government problems accompanying them. However, if Erdogan continues to provide more of his authoritarian rule, the recovery will be doubly difficult.