Turkey is apparently a country with declining democratic performance. The elections, the consolidation of unchecked power in the hands of President Erdogan, widespread corruption among the political elite all point out to this poor performance. However, perhaps the most important decline is felt by the citizens of Turkey in the form of day-to-day violations of their liberties. While the government imposes such limits on freedom, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided it with an excellent opportunity to disguise such limits as health precautions.
From the beginning of the current pandemic, many countries have been experiencing democratic erosion with the abuses of power and suppression carried out by their governments or leaders. Although most of such attempts were aimed at consolidating power and limiting criticism, there are cases where the government used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on the lifestyle of the citizens who do not subscribe to the preferred practices of the government, despite the irrelevance of health concerns with such lifestyles. Turkey is a prime example for inspecting how COVID-19 measures can be used for limiting personal freedom even when the imposed limits apparently do not aim at containing the disease.
Turkey has previously declared curfews on weekends and holidays. Curfews on weekends had been applied for a few weeks and then lifted. The measure has recently been introduced again by the government, but this time with a difference. On December 4th, the people who wanted to do their shopping for the weekend found out to their surprise that the sale of alcoholic beverages was banned by the executive authorities. Even more interestingly, this did not seem to be a nationwide practice. Some small and local markets were told by the police force that there was a circular issued by the Ministry of the Interior prohibiting the sale of alcohol on that specific Friday while the large corporate chains still sold alcoholic beverages. However, one week later the measure became nationwide. There were red and white tapes going over the refrigerators where the beverages were kept with announcements that the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited by the ministry. Although there were reactions from the public, they remained solely on social media due to the dangerous nature of crowds because of the pandemic and the suppression of the traditional media outlets by the government. Therefore, the issue was not discussed widely among the public and that is why a statement by public officials on the reasoning behind the ban is yet to come.
On the other hand, the Friday prayers (which constitute an important part of religious observation according to Islam, the dominant religion in Turkey) have been carried out regularly since the beginning of the pandemic except a short period in March when the mosques were kept open but the citizens were advised not to attend Friday prayers in mosques and to observe at home. As of mid-December, the mosques are open, and all prayers are practiced with the participation of the congregation. The individuals who are under special curfew such as those under the age of 20 and over the age of 65 are excused of the curfew to attend Friday prayers if they wish to do so. The Ministry of Education advises teachers to leave free hours between the online lectures during the Friday prayers so that the students can observe.
This instance is a culmination of the practices of the AKP government in recent years. The religious tendencies of the party have always been apparent from the foundation and even the predecessors of the party. Time and time again, the AKP elite instrumentalized religion for populist purposes in both its legislative activities and discourses. The people who did not subscribe to a religious worldview were derogated in several occasions pertaining to domestic and international developments in Turkish politics. However, more often than not, the government faced backlash as a result of such activities. Although the reaction from the public never accumulated to a dangerous level for the government, it might have been serving as a reminder that disapproval was brewing among the people.
With the emergence of a pandemic, the AKP government was provided with the perfect opportunity to increase pressure on the ‘dissidents’ of the society. The health concerns of individuals surpassed their concerns about authoritarianism, democracy, or human rights. The measures taken during the pandemic, most of which were unthinkable during the pre-pandemic days were easily accepted and supported by the public. Prohibiting the gathering of crowds, the closure of nightclubs, the prohibition of live music in restaurants, curfews and other measures were sure to raise discontent in the public and were most likely to result in wide protests. On the contrary, the public easily accepted and even supported the implementation of such limitations almost unanimously in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. It was never as easy as it is now for the government to impose limits on personal freedom since it has a catastrophic health crisis justifying its every move. So, it only became an issue of framing for the government to carry the limitations out. If something can be framed as a measure against the spread of COVID-19, it can be implemented.
Of course, the pandemic has to be dealt with and it may require strong measures for protecting the health systems, the economies, or even the stability of states. Some of these measures will inevitably restrict freedoms and liberties and will inevitably impede democracy. The desirable roadmap should incorporate democracy and health precaution but it may not always be possible due to a variety of factors such as a large population, the inadequacy of the digital infrastructures, or the resilience of societal habits such as the social gatherings that incorporate alcohol consumption or the gathering of crowds for religious observation, just to name a few. Although undesirable, governments may be excused for imposing limits on such freedoms to deal with the risks of the pandemic. However, if one can observe indications that the government is more interested in imposing such limits for political purposes rather than health concerns, the incentive to excuse the government no longer exists. Now, an important question would be whether the government is genuinely aiming to contain the disease by the mentioned violation of personal freedoms as in the case of our alcohol ban example or merely trying to disguise the impositions it wishes to carry out as precautions against COVID-19. Uneven measures that seem to restrict the freedoms of only a part of the society, and coincidentally the part of the society which does not conform to the worldview of the government, points to the latter. It shows the tendency of the government to favor certain parts of the population over the others. A tendency which is necessarily in contrast with democratic ideals that necessitate each citizen of a state to receive equal treatment with respect to political decisions.
Although instances of democratic erosion have been observed in a wide range of countries during the COVID-19 pandemic regardless of their democratic performance, in Turkey where performance had already been poor, the measures against the pandemic seem like a disguise over the limits on personal liberties that the government had long been hoping to impose. Then, we can conclude that the negative effects of COVID-19 on democracy are not always avoidable, but sometimes voluntary.