The country encountered the COVID-19 pandemic under such troublesome circumstances. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the AKP has paid much effort to upholding a positive image among the public in Turkey. While doing this, it has relied on its intense control over media and free speech while allegedly misrepresenting unemployment rates as well as coronavirus statistics. Still, the policies introduced to combat the pandemic and its damaging effects have displayed a fragmentary and haphazard pattern causing public criticism and protest from different segments of the population.
In connection with this, the COVID-19 crisis has seen cracks form in the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proficient power politics game of discrediting his existing and potential opponents, and exposed some soft spots of the AKP regime specifically concerning the financial situation. The economy has proved to be the central nerve ending for the government, whereby financial prospects are dire given that the pandemic has caused a plunge in industrial production and growth rates. However, the fragmentary nature of the AKP’s COVID-19 crisis governance is also present in the configuration of political opposition which complicates the issue of forging a strong and unified counter-movement.
Competitive Authoritarianism, Fragmented Opposition, and Financial Fragility
An account of the recent political and economic developments in Turkey will be useful for a better grasp of the AKP’s governance of the COVID-19 crisis and public reactions. Scholars Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü argue that Turkish politics devolved from tutelary democracy in which the military possessed “a virtual veto power over elected officials” into a competitive authoritarian (CA) regime under the AKP rule.[i] In CA regimes, there are still elections however they are unfair, civil liberties are restricted, and the playing field is heavily biased in favour of the ruling party with uneven access to resources and media for the opposition.
The coup attempt in 2016, organized by the Gülenist movement which had been the instrumental ally of the AKP while subduing the secularist republican faction in the army, heightened authoritarianism. It enabled the AKP government and president Erdoğan to effectively quash political opposition under the state of emergency rule that lasted for two years, and produced a favourable environment for abolishing the parliamentary democracy. In 2017, the AKP held a constitutional referendum and inaugurated the executive presidential system which the party elites had been pushing for since the mid-2000s. Here are just some of many examples of the authoritarian practices after the coup attempt: the deposition and arrest of pro-Kurdish party mayors and members of parliament, the purge of more than 150 thousand public-sector employees under the accusation of supporting terrorism, the closing down of hundreds of associations and media platforms, and the rerun of the 2019 municipal election in Istanbul after the AKP candidate’s loss.
Against such severe pressures, the opposition forces have been in a precarious position and are struggling to initiate viable political alternatives to challenge the AKP’s hegemony, as well as to unite different fragments of Turkish society that are perturbed by the pressing political and economic problems. Nonetheless, the current situation involves a divided opposition mainly with respect to conflicting positions vis-à-vis the Kurdish question and secularism. The governance strategy of the AKP and Erdoğan has long rested upon determining the political landscape through manipulating public opinion and deepening the conflicts and fragmentation among the opposition. Political scientist Burak Karacan interprets this situation with the concept of unipolarity derived from international relations literature. Accordingly, Erdoğan invests in a power play whereby the AKP captures the seat of “the single most powerful actor whose political might cannot be checked or balanced by its critics or opponents, who in turn remain essentially divided”.
Financial success and stability had served as a pivotal justification for the AKP regime for years. Economist Ümit Akçay termed the AKP’s economic model as “neoliberal populism” which coupled privatization and the taming of the labour movement with a partial welfarism providing income support and cheap loans to households.[ii] The Turkish economy remained relatively strong with increasing growth rates until 2012, when economic stagnation began as an after-effect of the 2008 financial crisis causing the drainage of capital from the markets of the Global South.
The neoliberal populist economic regime benefited a lot from the inflow of foreign capital during the first decade of the AKP’s rule, and faltered when global liquidity decreased and hot financial capital changed its direction. The AKP’s economic model has been structurally fragile while heavily relying on hot capital flows and lacking a solid industrial policy that would generate production and employment.[iii] Finally, the external debt of banks and the indebtedness of firms and households have since 2018 been reaching unprecedented peaks. The critical events in the second half of the 2010s— including the failed coup attempt, introduction of the presidential system, and the erosion of institutional decision-making together with the geopolitical crisis ensuing from the Syrian Civil War—worsened the economic fragility.[iv]
How the Pandemic Unfolded in Turkey
The government began its course of action against the COVID-19 pandemic at a relatively early stage by establishing a scientific committee composed of medical experts in mid-January. This was well received by the opposition as well as AKP supporters. The pandemic hit the country in mid-March when the first case was diagnosed and the government commenced an action plan including the suspension of international flights and shutting of schools. Then it declared intermittent and partial lockdowns that continued from 11 April until June when the government started the normalization plan.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause a healthcare disaster in Turkey in its first four months, contrary to pessimistic expectations arising from the country’s existing predicaments, such as the ongoing corrosion of independent institutional structures and a general lack of transparency. The figures have been favourable with a lower case-fatality rate and a higher recovery rate in comparison to global and Europe-wide statistics. A combination of factors have accounted for this relative success including the supposed undercounting of cases. An article published in early May explains these factors in detail. Most decisively, the Turkish population is relatively young whereby the median age is just over 30, hence the wider portion of Turkish society falls under the low-risk group. The people over 65 make up only 9.1 percent of the population whereas this rate is around 19 percent within the entire EU population.
Similar to various other parts of the Global South, the pandemic has fuelled the authoritarian responses and polarizing populist rhetoric of the government in Turkey. For instance, the head of the Religious Affairs Presidency, which the government has promoted immensely as a social-engineering apparatus in recent years, targeted LGBTI people while claiming “homosexuality brings with it illnesses”. In another case, the head of the RTÜK (Radio and Television High Council, the Turkish broadcasting watchdog), declared in a conference on the agency’s policies against the pandemic that they considered barring TV anchors from making their own comments while presenting the news.
A Fragmentary Approach in the Governance of the Pandemic
The policies introduced by the government to fight the COVID-19 crisis have reflected a fragmentary pattern while being inconsistent and exclusionary. During the early days of the pandemic, the minister of health called upon people to declare their own personal OHAL (state of emergency) in a press conference replying to a question on whether the government was considering imposing a state of emergency because of the outbreak. This response was telling in regard to the government’s reluctance to come up with an all-encompassing policy plan for combating the pandemic and the socio-economic complications it creates.
Declaring one’s own personal OHAL meant self-quarantining which presupposed that the person would have a steady income and a job that could be carried out from home. This notion excluded the working people, especially the ones in manual jobs and the service sector that composed the majority of the employed population in Turkey. Needless to say, the service sector has been heavily hit by the pandemic and many employees effectively lost their jobs in this period. The government, despite forbidding businesses from letting go of their employees for three months from mid-April, enabled them to put the workers on unpaid leave which, in this case, becomes the politically-correct name for dismissal. Consequently, the anti-pandemic policies of the government failed to account for millions of people without any income but for the small state support that is roughly equal to 150 euros per month—which is half the minimum wage. This support was stopped after three months despite the need for it still lingering on while the economy is far from recovery.
The measures against the coronavirus crisis have been tailored not to disturb the economic and political vulnerabilities of the government at the expense of public health and the well-being of disadvantaged groups. In this respect, political Islam and religious sentiments, which the AKP habitually manipulates as a populist policy tool to consolidate its voter base, emerged as an obstruction to anti-contagion policies. For instance, the Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca, Saudi Arabia were not stopped until late February. By mid-March, there were over 20,000 pilgrims yet to return to Turkey. Only one third of the returnee pilgrims were even haphazardly quarantined and the rest were told to self-isolate. Eventually, many infected pilgrims went back to their hometowns, potentially spreading the virus.
The issue of lockdown appeared to be another case revealing the inconsistency of anti-COVID policies. The government refrained from imposing a total lockdown as it could not afford to stop the cycle of production and consumption in a fragile economy with a serious budget deficit. Instead, it opted for imposing partial and intermittent curfews that lasted only for the weekends and holidays. During most of the intermittent lockdown period, shopping malls were open while parks and beaches were closed. A peculiar trait of the government’s curfew policy was a kind of haphazardness, considering the lack of adequate notice and the changing scope and plans. For instance, the first curfew was announced only two hours before it would come into effect on 11 April, causing millions of people across the country to pour into the streets in order to buy essentials, which generated a serious health risk and intense complaints from the public.
Vulnerabilities of the AKP Regime and a Changing Voting Landscape
One of the salient contradictions of the political regime that the pandemic has brought out is concerned with the AKP’s strong emphasis on elections since its initial years, whereby the party commonly justifies its anti-democratic policies through majoritarianism. Much to Erdoğan’s annoyance, the party lost Istanbul and Ankara, the two most important cities of Turkey, to the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) in local elections in 2019. After that, the public funds for these municipalities were cut drastically and their financial initiatives were narrowed down. Beginning with the early days of the pandemic, the mayors of both cities launched donation campaigns for social assistance, which the government first ordered to stop and then later challenged in court. Erdoğan slammed these municipalities and criminalized the donation campaigns while framing them as part of an attempt to “act as a state within the state”.
A recent much-referenced opinion poll by Metropoll Research Company disclosed that Erdoğan’s approval rating increased by 14 points and hit 57.2 percent during the first month of the pandemic. However, after two months, the president’s approval rating fell to 50.7 percent in late May. The mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, who stands out with his strong anti-corruption stance, comes a close second after the president with 49.6 percent and the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is in fourth place. This situation shows that the COVID-19 crisis created an opportunity for the opposition politicians at the municipal level to challenge the president’s strong popularity through competent provision of public services and social assistance.
According to the same survey, the politician in third place is Süleyman Soylu, who used to be a fervent critic of Erdoğan until 2010, but since 2016 has been the interior minister representing the nationalist bloc within the AKP. He is popular with his anti-terror fervour focused against the Gülenist organization—widely seen as being behind the coup attempt—and the Kurdish movement which has been the long-term enemy of Turkish nationalism.
Amid the public outrage ensuing from the 11 April curfew fiasco, Soylu announced his resignation via Twitter by saying “I will be loyal to our glorious nation, which I never want to hurt, for the rest of my life and may my dear President forgive me”. Not long after, hundreds of thousands of tweets had been posted in support of the minister, which was interpreted as a power play by Soylu. The next day, the presidency representative announced that Soylu’s resignation had not been accepted and he would continue in his post. Commentators interpreted this whole incident as a stitch-up whereby Erdoğan wanted to pass the buck to Soylu regarding the 11 April blunder. However, public support for the minister quashed this plan and showed that Soylu can potentially become a challenge to Erdoğan’s one-man leadership when the opportunity and favourable circumstances arise.
The head of Metropoll Research Company, Özer Sancar claims that economic problems currently transpire as the most pressing issue shaping voting preferences in Turkey, which is facing the financial crisis and growing unemployment. Accordingly, as the support for the AKP fell to 30.7 percent in May 2020, which is the lowest of its nearly two decades of rule, the party’s strategy of distracting from economic problems with religious and nationalistic agendas has reached its limit. Considering that the AKP’s economic relief package against the pandemic is approximately 4.5 percent of GDP, which is less than half of the G20 average of ten percent, the majority of the population is in need of proper financial support and stability in order to sustain their livelihoods. As the government suspended lockdowns and initiated normalization in June, it pinned its hopes on summer tourism revenues to alleviate the financial situation. However, as major EU countries like Germany recently declared Turkey as being not safe for travel during the pandemic, this expectation is not likely to materialize.
Possibility of Transformation?
As the voting landscape shifts, Metropoll’s research also shows that the people who withdraw their support from the AKP remain largely indecisive. That is, they are not opting for other political parties at the moment which shows that the opposition parties have shortcomings in presenting themselves as a viable alternative to the AKP for the conservative public with religious and nationalistic leanings. The two new centre-right political parties, DEVA (Remedy) and Gelecek (Future), recently founded by long-term ex-cabinet members of the AKP regime, aspire to receive the support of the AKP’s electorate as well as undecided voters. Even though recent polls measure the support for both parties at around 1.5 percent each, DEVA’s leader Ali Babacan’s interview on a popular YouTube channel in late May created much interest on social media and among the various dissenting groups. Babacan had been the minister of foreign affairs and then the minister of economy until 2011 during the successful period of the AKP, and he centres his campaign on the promise of getting the economy back on track.
All in all, these developments manifest that the COVID-19 crisis drew out the regime’s contradictions, along with deepening the existing disparities and the economic impasse. Time will tell whether these political vulnerabilities can lead to a transformation and betterment of democracy in Turkey. Surely, this requires an opposition front with a unifying rhetoric and policy plans which are convincing to diverse segments of society, and hence capable of disrupting the unipolarity of Erdoğan’s political power.
[i] Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, ‘Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 9 (2016), 1581-1606, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1135732.
[ii] Ümit Akçay, ‘Neoliberal Populism in Turkey and Its Crisis’ Working Paper, no. 100 (2018), Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Recht Berlin, Institute for International Political Economy (IPE), Berlin, DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.30704.76801.
[iii] Özgür Orhangazi and Erinç Yelden, ‘Re-Making of the Turkish Crisis’, Working Paper, no. 504 (2020), Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, available at https://www.peri.umass.edu/component/k2/item/1254-re-making-of-the-turkish-crisis.
[iv] Ibid, p. 25.