The Coronavirus Has Led to More Authoritarianism for Turkey

Reuters
May 6, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Middle East Watch Tags: TurkeyErdoganCoronavirusPandemicPolitics

The Coronavirus Has Led to More Authoritarianism for Turkey

It is difficult to see how Ankara will be able to recover from the heavy toll that the coronavirus is inflicting on the country and the accompanying deep economic and governance problems.

Lastly, since Justice and Development Party candidates in Istanbul and other leading metropolitan cities lost last year’s mayoral elections to opposition parties, Erdoğan has systematically undermined and blocked their efforts to fight the coronavirus. The efforts of the Ankara and Istanbul mayors to raise donations from the public were declared illegal, a declaration that violated the law governing the powers of municipalities in Turkey. Additionally, the government opened a criminal probe against the mayors. Simultaneously, Erdoğan used the need to thin out Turkey’s overcrowded prisons to prevent the spread of the virus to consolidate his alliance with his ultra-nationalist coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli and his Nationalist Action Party, which has become a vital ally needed to garner the 50 percent + 1 necessary to win presidential elections. The parliament adopted a partial amnesty law, long desired by the Nationalist Action Party, early in April. The law allows for the release of ninety thousand ordinary criminal convicts while continuing to keep close to fifty thousand imprisoned, including Kavala and Demirtaş, on loosely worded terrorism charges.  

Conclusion

The Economist recently published an article which argues that autocrats are using the coronavirus to grab power. But for Erdoğan, preventing the coronavirus from eroding his one-man rule and preempting future challenges to it is more important. Thus, it is these goals that cause Erdoğan’s approach to appear piecemeal and incremental compared to those adopted by other countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. Nevertheless, his handling of the crisis so far, at least according to one survey, has received almost 56 percent approval from the public, an increase of more than fifteen points from February. If his new plans for opening the country proceed smoothly and a resurgence of the virus is prevented, then this support is likely to increase, potentially providing Erdoğan the support he needs to further cement his rule.  

Moving forward, it is difficult to see how Turkey will be able to recover from the heavy toll that the coronavirus is inflicting on the country and the accompanying deep economic and governance problems. Yet if Erdoğan continues to offer more of his authoritarian, one-man rule, recovery will be doubly difficult and likely result in an inward-looking Turkey, bogged down in its own problems and unable to play a constructive role in reconstituting a post–COVID world order that cherishes democracy, the rule of law and sustainable economic development.  

Kemal Kirişci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

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