April 20, 2020 | The Jerusalem Post

Bungled lockdown reflects failure of Erdogan’s coronavirus policy

In an odd reversal of roles, the Turkish opposition had been demanding a coronavirus lockdown, while Erdogan continued to drag his feet
April 20, 2020 | The Jerusalem Post

Bungled lockdown reflects failure of Erdogan’s coronavirus policy

In an odd reversal of roles, the Turkish opposition had been demanding a coronavirus lockdown, while Erdogan continued to drag his feet

Panicked citizens crowded into stores across Turkey the previous Friday night, undermining the government’s last-minute announcement of a 48-hour weekend lockdown in 31 major cities, a belated response to the country’s spiraling coronavirus epidemic. Hoping to stock up on supplies before being shut in, the mass of shoppers reversed the public health gains from the halfhearted social distancing measures Ankara had taken previously.

This raises the question of why Turkey’s Islamist strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, botched what he does best – a lockdown? While Erdogan does not hesitate to employ repressive measures against his own citizens, this time he found himself trapped by an economic crisis of his own making, which has made him fear the economic fallout of the public health measures necessary to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Turkish president has been notorious for banning and brutally suppressing public gatherings ranging from May Day and Women’s Day rallies to Istanbul’s Pride Parade – once the Middle East’s biggest LGBTQ get-together, alongside Tel Aviv’s.

In an odd reversal of roles, the Turkish opposition had been demanding a coronavirus lockdown, while Erdogan continued to drag his feet until April 10, making calls to “keep the wheels turning under all conditions and circumstances.” A government-mouthpiece columnist even accused lockdown advocates of devising sinister plans to instigate a civil war.

The Turkish president’s suicidal policy response is in part a consequence of his economic predicaments. He has spent almost all the country’s rainy-day funds on lavish vanity projects awarded to cronies and left the government with a huge tab of revenue guarantees to construction firms. Thanks to Erdogan, Turkey also has an overleveraged nonfinancial sector with foreign exchange liabilities totaling some $300 billion. Financially, Erdogan has no room to maneuver.

Turkey’s empty coffers even prompted Erdogan to call for donations from citizens while other G20 economies announced massive stimulus plans. Ankara’s meagre $15 billion package amounts to 1.5% of GDP, dwarfed by the ratio of other countries’ packages. Hence, an enduring lockdown is out of question, forcing Turkey’s laborers to defy COVID-19 to keep afloat an economy mismanaged beyond salvation by none other than Erdogan’s son-in-law, Minister of Finance and Treasury Berat Albayrak.

What makes matters even more challenging for Erdogan is that the leading proponents of a national lockdown happen to belong to Turkey’s pro-secular main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Having won local elections last spring, which reversed 25 years of uninterrupted Islamist rule in the country’s political capital of Ankara and financial capital of Istanbul, the cities’ respective CHP mayors Mansur Yavas and Ekrem Imamoglu have become success stories of Turkey’s coronavirus response, gaining the appreciation of voters across the political spectrum.

An Erdogan more concerned about the public health ramifications of an epidemic, and less about his political prospects, would have been thankful to have competent mayors in Turkey’s top two metropolises, which have over 18 million inhabitants between them, more than the population of the Netherlands. In keeping with his legendary partisan and polarizing track record, however, the Turkish president chose to derail the opposition mayors’ efforts. Erdogan first criticized them for operating unauthorized donation campaigns, then blocked the municipal accounts earmarked for aiding Ankara and Istanbul residents, shuttered soup kitchens run by the municipalities, and even went as far as to launch criminal probes against both mayors.

Erdogan is keen to remain the sole patron of the entire nation, however, during a pandemic that requires close cooperation between central and local governments, such zero-sum thinking and competitive jealousy is madness, to say the least.

Nonetheless, Erdogan ordered the 48-hour lockdown on the night of April 10 without any coordination whatsoever with local governments. This is why the order caught even mayors by surprise. An hour after the announcement, Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu tweeted his protest that he didn’t even know which services he would be able to deliver during the next two days.

Erdogan’s catastrophic mismanagement, or to be more accurate, the obstacles he poses to competent civil servants and public health professionals from doing what is necessary, is taking its toll on Turkish citizens. Although Turkey’s Health Ministry has so far succeeded in undercounting confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19, the country still has one of the worst trajectories in the world, with more confirmed cases than Iran, and almost as many cases as China, as of April 18.

The economic and public health consequences of the epidemic are obviously clear to the average Turkish citizen, whose discontent is brewing. Erdogan’s usual remedy of arresting social media users for their critical posts or journalists over their COVID-19 reporting does not seem to be working this time. As the lockdown was coming to an end the previous Sunday, in a rare sign of bowing to public pressure, Turkey’s interior minister, known for his callous and draconian responses to citizens’ protests, submitted his resignation – which Erdogan refused to accept.

At this point, Turkey’s Islamist government botches even what it normally does best – banning public gatherings and forcing people off the streets. As Erdogan chooses to prioritize his reputation over his people, he is on course to deliver one of the slowest recoveries from the coronavirus pandemic’s economic and public health fallout. This is bad news not only for Turkey’s 84 million citizens, but also the country’s neighbors and trading partners, which will also suffer the contagious effects of Erdogan’s ill-advised policies.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @aykan_erdemir.