The next victim of the coronavirus could be civil liberties

As the Turkish government strengthens measures to contain and combat the COVID-19 outbreak, Turkish prosecutors have charged 20 Saudi nationals for their part in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul in October 2018.  

Both of these actions show the continued rise in broad nationalist policy-making and implementation, though from very different angles. Particularly when it comes to fighting the spread of COVID-19, we are all nationalists now.  

By nationalism, this writer means a policy of putting national interests first, and putting multilateralism to the side. In a sense, it is emulating United States President Donald Trump’s “America First” program. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long pursued a similarly “Turkey First” policy, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued a “Saudi Arabia First” program since becoming the de-facto leader there. The type of leadership a country has determines how a country manifests its nationalism.

In the United States, the federal system of governance with shared sovereignty between the 50 states and national government checks the authority of the national president. Also, the control of the national levers of power are divided between the executive, legislative, and judiciary.  

The response to COVID-19 reflects this. Trump can use his authority to close the borders to nationals of countries in which there are serious outbreaks of COVID-19. But for Trump to impose a nationwide lockdown, as Italy has done, would be fraught with legal questions about his authority to - for example - use the U.S. military to enforce a lockdown. It is the governors who, within their respective states, wield broad police authority. Several states have imposed quarantines, restricted movement and assembly, and closed entertainment and sporting facilities.  

The national legislature also constrains a U.S. president’s freedom of action. To counter the economic impact of imposed or voluntary shutdown of activity to break the transmission of the virus, Trump had to negotiate with congress to secure a package of relief measures of approximately $2 trillion. 

In Turkey, the unitary state places much more authority in the hands of the national executive - provincial and municipal leaders have fewer levers of power to pull. But although the national government does not share sovereignty with the provinces, parliament does exercise control over the budget as a means to constrain presidential ambitions. Similarly, parliament must approve the deployment of Turkish military forces abroad. But the domination of national assembly by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party makes this parliamentary constraint more notional than real.

The charges brought against Khashoggi’s killers are illustrative of the relatively limited independence of the Turkish justice system. Most observers are convinced that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince ordered, or at least approved, of the operation to kill Khashoggi. Yet the Turkish justice system decided not to indict the Saudi crown prince. This likely responds to a concern from the Turkish presidency not to cause a complete rupture of relations with Saudi Arabia, which would not be in Turkey’s national interests.  

The Saudi crown prince sits atop a network of family and relatives that administers the country as he and his network so wish. Unlike the United States and Turkey - where any attempt by a leader to exercise sole authority in determining the country’s national interest would have to accommodate itself, to a greater or lesser degree, to the opinions of others about the national interest - in Saudi Arabia, the crown prince and his network ensure that the national interests align with the interests of the House of Saud.  

Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in accordance with legal authorities congress had delegated to the president or that the independent judiciary determined were his under the constitution. Erdoğan’s required parliament’s agreement to deploy Turkish soldiers to Syria and Libya. 

No such constraints exist on the Saudi crown prince. He determines what actions are in the national interest, and, if the reporting of the Washington Post is to be believed, he determined it was in the best interests of his country that Khashoggi be killed.  

As each nation under the threat of COVID-19 throws up higher barriers to others entering its national territory, a willingness to place more power in the hands of national leaders emerges. Where we find a system of governance in which nationalism fuelled by populism faces systemic and structural constraints - either by a system of shared sovereignty or the checks of an independent judiciary and non-pliant legislature on the exercise of power by the national executive - we need not worry too much about the erosion of fundamental freedoms.  

But this is not the case in nations in which national power riding on popular support has eroded the independence of the judiciary and led to a pliant legislature. In such nations there exists the real possibility that a national leader will use the measures put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19 as an opportunity to enhance his sole power to determine the national interests.  

Turkey has already experienced the opportunistic curtailment of press freedom during and after the state of emergency imposed following the failed coup attempt of July 2016.  

History records the deadly consequences that can result when one person determines the national interests without systemic or structural constraints on his actions. The murder of Khashoggi is a small part of that record.  

As the fears of COVID-19 are used to impose strict measures “in the national interest,” Turkey faces the challenge of preventing the further erosion of civil liberties by the increasing concentration of national authority in the hands of one man.