The aftershocks of a curfew and a resignation in Turkey

The aftershocks of a curfew and a resignation in Turkey

Western democracies are struggling to cope with an unprecedented health crisis. With few exceptions, many governments have come under criticism for their approach to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But it would be unfair to put all the blame on politicians; individuals, too, should assume their share of criticism for having failed their responsibilities. Some in the advanced democracies of Europe have not abided by the rules of self-isolation, while others have rushed to markets, leading to unnecessary shortages due to hoarding.

Regardless of whether you would categorize Turkey as a developed or developing country, it was no exception in terms of showing the same failures both at governmental and societal level.

We witnessed the most acute example at both levels last Friday, April 10, between 9:30 p.m. and midnight.

Following an announcement at 9 p.m. from the Interior Ministry that a curfew would go into effect in major cities over the weekend, people rushed to the markets. Until now, the Interior Ministry has announced decisions, followed two hours later by an additional decree explaining the details of the implementation. This time, after witnessing the rush to markets, the ministry did publicize within half an hour the additional, crucial detail that bakeries would remain open over the weekend, but it was already too late.

We saw people fighting in front of bakeries, proving that Turks lack creativity in finding ways to physically beat each other while maintaining social distancing at the same time. “We have been shoveling snow for days, and now we have an avalanche,” an unidentified member of the Health Ministry’s Science Committee is believed to have said.

The curfew hysteria was not limited to big cities; some small Anatolian towns had to make announcements that they were not included in the curfew. 

Excluding the very tiny minority in the dire situation of having to do daily shopping, videos on social media suggested that a very big majority rushed to the streets unnecessarily. People still live in large families in big cities; a significant majority of women do not work, and they always have stocks of food at home. They are also master chefs, cooking wonders with leftovers.

At any rate, this two-hour frenzy and its political and social aftershocks offer plenty to analyze for social and political scientists.

To start with, it appears that the decision-makers seem to have failed to foresee the consequences of an untimely announcement of a curfew. Justice and Development Party (AK Party) officials used to be proud of being strongly in touch with their grassroots while criticizing the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for being too elitist. Can we now assume that after 18 years in power, the ruling elites are becoming increasingly disconnected with the grassroots – something that was first demonstrated during the municipal elections last year?

For years, AK Party supporters criticized the CHP for despising ordinary people, particularly less-educated conservatives. Some of them, however, were strongly critical of people rushing out to the streets, using condescending comments. 

At this stage, let me add that the shopping frenzy was across the board, as markets in Istanbul’s upscale neighborhoods like Bebek and Nişantaşı also saw a rush last Friday night. But it was “average” Turks who were under fire from AK Party supporters. Were they perhaps the victim of the consumption culture that successive AK Party governments have been encouraging to keep the economy alive? Or perhaps, fearing a prolonged curfew, were they the victim of the government’s unpredictability? How can you explain the long queues in front of gas stations, as people tried to get gasoline for cars that they wouldn’t be able to use anyway over weekend? Or was it distrust of the government, fears of an oil shortage or pure irrationality?

At any rate, this episode has divided the supporters of the AK Party, as some criticized Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who announced his resignation at around 9 p.m. on Sunday night. Soylu, who used to be extremely critical of the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he was the head of the Democrat Party, only joined the AK Party in 2009, and he has a lot of enemies within the party as he is seen to be an outsider. Commentators, however, agree that Erdoğan’s rejection of his resignation has made him stronger within the party.

He seems to have built a base of supporters around him, as some prominent AK Party figures came out in support of him. Former AK Party officials like Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who are now openly critical of the current administration, are under fire for keeping silent when in office. Soylu, on the other hand – who also broached the possibility of resignation last year – is making sure has seen his hints that he could leave the government.

“The fact that our shortcoming was accepted as something human by the [nation and the president] and that we have been given the right to repair this has increased our responsibility,” Soylu said on April 13 in a tweet.

Sadly, his resignation attempt might have done more damage than repair. The decision to resign came at 9 p.m. at a time when the ministry should have been busy thinking about how to make sure people did not rush onto the streets at the end of the curfew at midnight. And by Monday morning, while the focus should have been on how to track and enforce self-isolation on those who went out onto the streets on Friday night, violating all the rules on social distancing in the process, the main topic of discussion was Soylu’s political career.