Some people may have thought that authoritarian regimes like China dealt with the coronavirus pandemic more effectively than other countries, which is already a controversial issue. However, this theory does not apply to Turkey, as Erdogan’s heavily centralized one-man rule has failed to respond to the COVID-19 threat appropriately.

In July 2018, Erdogan officially became the President of Turkey, enjoying vast political powers, fundamentally transforming himself as the sole and unquestionable leader of Turkey through a constitutional change.

Erdogan’s Palace

Turkey is facing a steep curve of new corona cases now. Currently, Turkey has the ninth highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases – 30,217 – even though the first case in Turkey was reported as recently as March 11. Comparably, it took Germany, with about the same population, two months to reach 30,000 cases from January 27 to March 23. Germany had only 26 cases on the 26th day after the first case was reported. South Korea, with a population of 51.5 million, reported its first case on January 20, and they had only 29 cases on the 26th day.

On the 26th day after the first case reported, Turkey had approximately 1,144 times more coronavirus cases than Germany and 638 times more cases than South Korea (after the population ratios are adjusted).

Erdogan does not listen to his own Health Minister, who pleaded for people to stay at home, explaining how coronavirus spreads from contact. Instead, he prioritized the economy over the lives of Turkish citizens.

Erdogan’s response to the virus was late and weak. Three months after the serious COVID-19 cases started in China, on March 27, Erdogan announced restrictions to counter the spread of the coronavirus due to the public reaction. They included a mandatory curfew for people over 65, the cancellation of international flights, and restricting public transportation in cities.

Turkey also announced a $15-billion stimulus package on March 18, which was one of the lowest in the G20 countries, and had only allocated $300 million to families in need. However, the struggling economy did not stop Erdogan from holding the first tender for his controversial Canal Istanbul project, in which his close family members, including his son-in-law and the Minister of Treasury and Finance, Berat Albayrak, and the mother of the Emir of Qatar have personal financial interests.

The COVID-19 cases hit over 20,000 on April 3, with 425 confirmed deaths, and Erdogan was forced to react again by the public outcry. This time, he announced a new curfew for people over the age of 65 and under the age of 20 and those with chronic diseases in an effort to slow down the spread of the pandemic.

The Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca continuously urged Turkish citizens to practice social distancing. However, he failed to convince Erdogan to enact a complete lockdown, including the closure of non-essential businesses. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases hit 30,217 on April 7, with 649 reported deaths.

Unfortunately, Erdogan insisted that “Turkey should keep wheels turning in the economy and that people continue going to work.”

Erdogan’s regime started to crack down on the people who dared the question his policies regarding the coronavirus, opening a new front of dissidents in Turkey. For example, a truck driver was arrested on March 29 after posting a video of his outcry on TikTok: “Either I stay at home at your word and die from hunger, or I die from the virus. In the end, it’s not the virus, but your system that will kill me,” which went viral, leading to his detention.

And the truck driver was right; people have been suffering financially from the pandemic with Turkish exports plunging 18% in March, the dollar to Turkish Lira rate at 6.75 (Erdogan was trying to stabilize it at 6), and the tourism sector is suffering from cancellations.

Erdogan knew the economic package he announced was not enough to help the sufferings of the working class and small businesses, so he came up with “the national solidarity campaign” to mobilize people behind him, announcing that he was pledging seven months’ worth of his salary to the campaign to help the needy.

All of a sudden, with the Turkish media under the control of Erdogan prioritizing the campaign through the TV networks they control, the government bureaucracy and companies close to Erdogan found themselves more or less forced to pledge to Erdogan’s donation campaign, oftentimes by deliberate and calculated threats to come up with a sizable amount. Strangely, the Erdogan government also shut down other campaigns opened to help the needy during the coronavirus pandemic like the ones established by the newly elected Istanbul and Ankara mayors.

People were divided concerning the solidarity campaign criticizing Erdogan’s and his family members’ extravagant lifestyle, including the construction of three new palaces, a fleet of 16 presidential airplanes along with 268 luxury vehicles, and his wife’s shopping sprees often temporarily closing shops and stopping traffic.

An opposition parliament member Selin Sayek Böke said:

“the money (the Turkish people’s) has gone to crony construction firms, and the public gets an IBAN number,” referring to the bank account number opened for Erdogan’s solidarity campaign. A Twitter user posted, “Sell your palace and live in honor, referring to Erdogan’s lavish 1150-room Presidential Palace, which cost $615 million to build.”

On the other hand, government officials were forced to pledge for Erdogan’s campaign. Ankara Police Department ordered its cadre over 30,000 officers to pledge at the pre-set amounts based on rank so that the pledges would be transferred to Erdogan’s campaign directly from their salaries before they were deposited.

Selin Sayek Böke

Furthermore, a Turkish teachers union announced that their members were blacklisted for not contributing to Erdogan’s campaign. Amid the controversies surrounding Erdogan’s solidarity campaign, Turkish authorities arrested three influential Twitter account owners on terror charges on April 1 due to their posts opposing Erdogan, accounts including “Turkey’s Facts,” “Ankara Bird,” and “the Backstage Bird.”

Another critical and life-threatening controversy in Turkey has been evolving around the people in Turkish prisons, simply because Turkey is the leading country in Europe by its prisoner population, with around 300,000 people imprisoned (including 780 babies). The fears of coronavirus spread in the overcrowded prisons have been in the public eye as the pandemic could spread to the wider public, with 70,000 officers working for the Turkish penitentiary system.

A general amnesty for the prisoners has been on the agenda of Turkish political parties for a long time, predominantly after the July 2016 coup attempt when Erdogan started to arrest thousands of opponents on bogus charges, including journalists, officers, doctors, teachers, police and military officers and over 3000 judges and prosecutors. The coronavirus epidemic was seen as a chance for the public to see their loved ones released from the prisons, and the public perception has mostly justified the release of non-violent offenders and a decrease in the sentencing time leading towards probation.

However, Erdogan has long dragged his feet, and he openly said that an amnesty would not include the political prisoners even though they did not commit violent crimes. Based on Erdogan’s remarks, the Turkish Parliament’s Justice Commission passed a draft law proposal on April 3 to grant an early release for criminal prisoners (excluding the political prisoners like the journalists) up to 100,000. Still, it failed to consider those in pre-trial detentions, which is often used to arrest the opposition. Meanwhile, guards were prohibited from leaving.

Opposition lawmakers criticized the commission’s draft, contending that criminals responsible for Turkey’s deadliest crimes would be released, and innocent journalists and political dissidents would stay in prison.

Turkish journalists cannot report the situation, as the crackdown on the press continues even during the pandemic with people being arrested for their Twitter posts. Essentially, the Turkish media is “not free,” according to the 2019 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders with Turkey ranking 157th out of 180 nations.

It is evident that Turkey will face severe economic repercussions from coronavirus. Erdogan is trying to force people to go to work, which will eventually result in vast numbers of coronavirus cases, overwhelm the already suffering Turkish health system, and lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Eventually, many Turkish people will pay the price with their lives while Erdogan and his inner circle are living a lavish life isolated from the public in their palaces. Erdogan’s solidarity campaign is just a publicity stunt, hardly even a short-term remedy for the needy.

Based on the Turkish experience, authoritarian regimes are not as efficient as some say in responding to pandemics.

Ahmet S. Yayla
Ahmet S. Yayla

AHMET S. YAYLA is the Director of the Center for Homeland Security at DeSales University and an Assistant Professor of Homeland Security. Former counterterrorism and operations chief in the Turkish police, Dr. Yayla is also a member of the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies Program in Master's in Applied Intelligence. Additionally, Dr. Yayla is a research fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013. He earned his Master's Degree and Ph.D. in the United States. Dr. Yayla has published both scholarly works and written or co-written numerous articles related to counterterrorism and homeland security. Yayla is the co-author of the recent book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate.

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