Turkish politics in the age of corona
A month has passed since Turkey announced its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. Over the last two weeks, there’s been a surge in the number of cases to put the death toll at close to 1,000 out of more than 40,000 infected. Turkey ranks ninth in the number of cases, but its mortality rate trails that of many other countries.
The Health Ministry continues to urge people to obey the rules of social distancing, although the government has not imposed a complete lockdown so far. The pandemic is the top agenda in the country amid concerns that it will have more drastic consequences on social and economic life if the spread is not contained.
In this environment, there are three main venues where the dynamics of Turkish politics are active. At the center is the presidency under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is holding regular online meetings with his ministers. Upon the advice of the Science Board, Erdoğan has been announcing measures in the fight against the virus since mid-March.
The opposition leaders are very careful to avoid getting into a war of words with Erdoğan at this time, although there are some issues on which they haven’t hesitated to criticize the government. In a general sense, the tone between the leaders seems to be one of de-escalation as the main issue is the fight against the contagious disease.
The second pillar is parliament. This is where the opposition parties are trying to be active against the government, particularly regarding some controversial draft laws. A bill that overhauls the criminal execution law that will release around 90,000 inmates but will keep journalists, academics and civil society activists behind bars, as well as an extensive omnibus bill that contains many amendments on various fields, are among this proposals.
Municipalities are the third but most active pillar of the internal political tension. Speaking fairly, the municipalities under the control of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) were the first to launch campaigns to provide aid to those who are in need and to those who were drastically affected by the measures against the coronavirus.
The respective mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, have actively served their constituencies since the beginning of the pandemic. The government’s decision to ban their donation campaigns has created a lot of discussion but has not prevented the opposition mayors from aiding the people. The controversy over who will lead the aid campaigns will likely continue to stir trouble in the coming period.
The first four weeks of the pandemic have decreased the tone in Turkish politics mainly due to social distancing. The opposition does not want to appear as though it is obstructing the government’s fight against the virus by using a harsh tone in its criticism. Instead, it wants to take a more positive and leading role by making concrete proposals on issues like preventing violence against health personnel and making things easier for medical staff.
The polarization, however, has proven to be one of the main characteristics of Turkish politics even in these very difficult days which require national unity. The failure of the central and local governments to collaborate to help the people is strong evidence on this front.
One day, the outbreak might finally be brought under control, but there doesn’t seem to be any cure on the horizon for the symptoms of the “polarization disease” in Turkish politics.