TURKEY’S ‘ORDINARY POLITICS’ DURING CORONAVIRUS

by Gökhan Şensönmez

Gökhan Şensönmez is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced numerous states to declare a state of emergency in order to take extra-ordinary measures. Although the list includes advanced capitalist-democratic polities, countries characterized by backsliding democracies and populist-authoritarian leaders such as Brazil and Hungary face the risk of further curtailment of rights and freedoms. On the other hand Turkey, an important member of the same classification, is adapting its ‘ordinary politics’ to its ‘new crisis’.

The question of why Turkey has not declared a state of emergency may appear trivial to the followers of the country’s day-to-day politics. The same audience may agree that even if it were declared it would only have symbolic importance due to the recently installed presidential system. This is designed to grant the executive power, which is centralized in the position of the president, the ability to determine and implement policies rigorously. Ministers, largely, have limited public visibility and popularity. Whilst there is little evidence that they have a say in the decisions made in their respective fields. It is no surprise then that the majority of citizens have only become properly acquainted with Dr. Fahrettin Koca (who is the Minister of Health) for the first time in his corona briefings. The minister’s evening reports were well-received but only communicated bits and pieces of information on the spread of the virus, demonstrating the public’s hunger for transparency and accountability.

Still, every major decision is made within Erdoğan’s close-circle, if not by the president himself.  Last Friday around 10pm, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Süleyman Soylu, announced a curfew that would be enforced from that weekend. Such a late announcement prompted people to rush into the streets, overcrowding the few open markets and creating a dangerous situation impeding the containment of the virus’s spread. A minister acting on his own and especially with such a drastic measure is highly unusual for Turkey. Nevertheless, the minister resigned from his critical position that he had been occupying since the failed coup attempt on July the 15th, 2016. His resignation reinforced a feeling of solidarity among Erdoğan’s supporters towards Soylu. They asked the president to keep him on board recounting his many deeds and successes, especially in the state’s struggle against terrorism.  In the end, the president stood by his minister reassuring his essential service for the state and rejecting his resignation. With one move, the minister remained in place emphasizing his public popularity and his individual weight within the circle. It is yet another crisis which was resolved rather quickly leaving clues to understand the complexity of relations and authorities with varying degrees of power behind the country’s decision-making process: there are prominent party members; there are regular ministers with no popularity or visibility; there are ministers with popularity and visibility granting them a relative authority vis-à-vis others but not towards Erdoğan; there is a circle of influencers consisting of businessmen, journalists, bureaucrats; and there is Erdoğan himself as the ultimate authority. This complexity causes contradictory statements for a period of time and it is always the president who conclusively asserts the state’s position. 

At first, the biopolitical nature of the crisis offered an unusual ground for solidarity and cooperation which raised hope for change, or at least for a partial softening in the deeply polarized politics of Turkey. Those cynical towards such a possibility however did not have to wait long for confirmation: as deceleration of economic activity harmed a significant number of citizens, social aid and collecting donations became the new field of competition between President Erdoğan and the metropolitan municipalities held by the main opposition party. On the one hand, the President accused them of becoming “a state within the state” and the municipalities’ bank accounts were immediately blocked. He especially targeted the mayors of Ankara and Istanbul who are the possible candidates for the next presidential election and are under close scrutiny by both the state and their supporters. Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in fact had to win the election twice to get into office and Ankara’s Mayor, Mansur Yavaş had to survive a couple of law-suits to take on his role. On the other hand, the state advertised its own bank accounts for donations and supplies which were delivered to houses in bags bearing the president’s insignia and containing a message of special regards sent by him. This further emphasized the unmediated connection of Erdoğan with the people. It becomes clear that the president aims to uphold a monopoly over the social aid and donations thereby keeping the popularity of his future competitors in check. 

All of these stories above indicate that Turkish politics is no stranger to extra-ordinary times. To take this one step further, I argue that the system in Turkey is not only designed to endure crises but instead that its survival depends on crisis. In every crisis we observe similar patterns: a strong emphasis on the power of the president and the decisions made by a very close-circle, a wake-up call for his supporters, a field of cooperation between state and people, and a field of competition where the state power is used to overwhelm a political other. The president’s rhetoric is now at a stage where he asks “to get rid of the viruses in media and politics alongside coronavirus” proving that this crisis is essentially not extraordinary at all. Before coronavirus it was the Syria and refugees, before that it was the economic crisis, and before that it was the local elections, and the list goes on and on, but the way they unfold are always similar. 

The history of Erdoğan’s rule is connected to a history of crises that constitute and sustain that rule. Although the president is the most popular politician by a large margin, the ordinarily tiresome ‘crisis’ politics is slowly but surely corroding the power structure, creating more and more grievances and paving the way for new contenders to emerge. 

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