The socio-economic and political atmosphere created by the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to be felt deeply in every corner of the world. Some might say this disaster may unite the world back together, but the general belief is that the extreme political conditions that have emerged could strike a severe blow to the world economy, democracy, and human rights. Developments in different parts of the world indicate that the latter is much more likely to be happening. The governments of many democratic countries, such as Poland, Hungary, and Israel have used the pandemic excuse to expand their executive power and restrict individual rights. But what about Turkey and the strongman regime of Erdoğan?
Turkey has faced political polarization and authoritarian rule for many years. The polarizing rhetoric that has increased among politicians, especially after the 2015 general election, has been blended with a more authoritarian regime, with Erdoğan winning the presidential election in 2018 following the transition from parliamentary to a presidential system with a constitutional referendum in 2017. In the ongoing years, Erdoğan has gathered many executive powers in his office that he can implement without any check-balance mechanism, and in its simplest form, he has managed to minimize the role of the Turkish parliament in the decision-making process. According to Freedom House’s 2019 data, Turkey is considering as “not free” and as an authoritarian democracy. Today, Turkey is facing a serious economic crisis as a result of the wrong policies implemented by the government at both national and international levels.
Erdoğan blames many different actors for this economic crisis and rising political tensions. According to him, foreign powers and internal “traitors” (usually opposition parties) are among the chief architects of the conditions in which the country is situated. Erdoğan’s personalized politics could be interpreted as creating an enemy regularly to boost support within Turkish society . By doing this, Erdoğan has aimed to change the agenda according to his will and ignored the actual serious problems being the highly oppressed society and the enlarging economic crisis.
For this reason, Erdoğan, who has been increasing his executive power day by day, has implemented serious media censorship to silence and purge opposition groups, academics, and journalists, and has taken steps to arrest many journalists and intellectuals. Today, because of Erdoğan’s witch-hunt against journalists, Turkey is one of the countries with the highest number of imprisoned journalists as of 2020. According to RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey is ranked as 154th out of 179 countries in the world in terms of press freedom.
After the serious defeat in 2019 local elections, Justice and Development Party (JDP) has lost power over municipalities in major cities such as İstanbul, İzmir, and the capital city Ankara to the opposition parties and their mayors. After this process, Erdoğan and JDP government have targeted the mayors in these cities according to their domestic political agenda, made them the main focus of the polarizing rhetoric, which has shaped with discriminating and accusatory tones. One of the reasons for this approach is the perception within the Turkish society that local elections are a predictor of general elections.
In the post-pandemic political atmosphere, it is possible to say that in the rhetoric used by Erdoğan and JDP party members, these discriminatory shades are increasing. For example, in the context of the fight against Coronavirus, a fundraising campaign has launched at the end of March under the leadership of Erdoğan and financial support has requested from the public. At the same time, the metropolitan municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul have also formed their campaigns and aimed to help the citizens who are in a difficult situation in the local communities. On the other hand, in the following days, campaigns of İstanbul and Ankara metropolitan municipalities have banned by the issued circular of the Ministry of internal affairs, and the mayors were accused of trying to establish a “parallel state” by Erdoğan and Minister of Internal Affairs Süleyman Soylu. Soylu stated that “If you announce to start a campaign to collect aid without permission of the government or governorate, you actually attempt to form a new state and government,’’ and accused mayors of “acting like a second government”. At some point, this rhetoric could be interpreted as polarizing action aimed to consolidate the ruling party’s own base and trying to portray opposition parties as the enemies of the state.
Many different examples are showing the growing authoritarianism of Erdoğan and the JDP government during the outbreak. Trying to turn the pandemic agenda into new opportunity to increase pressure on Turkish society, the JDP government is seeking to expand censorship and control over social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and online communication applications such as WhatsApp and Messenger with the new law proposal about social media. In addition, according to the statement released by the Ministry of Interior, more than 229 people had been detained because of their “provocative messages about coronavirus” in social media. As another example, Erdoğan has filed a complaint against Fox news anchorman Fatih Portakal because of his criticism against the donation campaign. Erdoğan, JDP, and their supporters have underlined that Portakal sharing lies and trying to manipulate the public to weaken Erdoğan and the government.
As a result of the economic throttle and the outbreak experienced in Turkey, the picture has led to the emergence of regulations that would endanger the health of the citizens. For example, in order to prevent the outbreak from spreading, the government has declared curfews covering only weekends. This poses a serious dilemma. It is because, in this partial curfews, people are continuing in their regular lives during the weekdays and keep spreading the virus all the time. However, to live their lives properly, people have to work even there is a huge risk that they can be infected. For example, a truck driver was arrested after sharing a video on his social media account expressing his grievances about the curfew with these words: “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 ” This sentence reflects the extent of economic hardship in Turkey and states that people are forced to work to earn money in order to continue their lives.
Erdoğan and JDP are putting people’s lives in danger by opting for such a partial curfew method. It is because they probably thinking that the Turkish economy cannot handle an absolute curfew. The members Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board ,which determining the measures to be taken based on the outbreak, stressed the necessity of curfew but it is looking like they did not receive a positive response from Erdoğan. This is one of the negative consequences of the one-man regime in the decision-making process: Erdoğan has the final say in all decisions that must be taken in the name of domestic and foreign policy and there is no mechanism to oversee or question his decisions.
The existence of the authoritarian regime in Turkey is being felt more and more these days in which economic concerns are considered to be more important than Turkish people’s lives. Today, anyone who makes criticisms about the policies of Erdoğan and JDP is targeted by the government using a discriminating language, and as a result, society is divided into “supporters and enemies”. The decisions that are taken by JDP elites are reflecting that the ruling party is more concerned for the continuation of the economy and personal interests of Erdoğan rather than the public health. To sum up, the new censorship process against people and media, blocking and banning campaigns of the municipalities and increasing economic problems are showing that Erdoğan’s strong man regime will continue to take steps to escalate its pressure on society and the opposition by using the extreme conditions of pandemic as an excuse. All the actions taken by Erdoğan are reflecting an important example of how dangerous can authoritarian leaders be during the coronavirus outbreak.
 Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz & Joseph Wright (2017) The Global Rise of Personalized Politics: It’s Not Just Dictators Anymore, The Washington Quarterly, 40:1, 7-19, DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2017.1302735