Turkish gov’t blocks municipal aid drives after launching national pandemic campaign

Turkish municipalities cannot collect financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic without permission from the provincial governor’s office, the Interior Ministry said in a formal notice to all 81 of the country’s governor’s offices.

ANKA news agency quoted the notice, as saying that organisations and foundations were listing bank account numbers to collect money, but that there was “no clause in our laws that exempt municipalities from the Aid Collection Law.”

But many observers in Turkey view the government’s measure as a de facto ban on aid drives it viewed as competition for its own.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced what he called a national solidarity campaign to gather donations to see Turkey’s poorest households through the coronavirus pandemic.

Politicians and business leaders began pouring money into the campaign after Erdoğan pledged seven months of his salary as president.

Meanwhile, pro-government commentators and influencers took to social media to spread word of the campaign.

Hilal Kaplan, a columnist at Sabah newspaper and associate the Bosphorus Global think-tank that is known for its ties to Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, said in a tweet that she and her husband were donating one month’s salary each.

 

“Normally I wouldn’t share this, but it’s necessary to disclose this to the public to encourage acts of good will during a public crisis,” Kaplan said.

Turkey's telecommunications giant Türk Telekom announced it is donating 40 million lira ($6 million) to the campaign.

But critics of the government said the campaign was a deflection from the state’s responsibility to care for its citizens during a crisis, pointing to the lack of a comprehensive financial aid package for the millions of Turks who are unable to work due to restrictions to stop the coronavirus’s spread.

Moreover, some opposition-controlled municipalities, including the country’s two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, had already launched their own campaigns to gather funds for citizens in need.

While Erdoğan’s junior coalition partner, far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, quickly pledged five months of his salary to the government’s campaign, Meral Akşener, the head of the opposition centre-right Good Party, made her donation to the drive run by the Istanbul Municipality.

The Interior Ministry’s announcement on Tuesday, a day after the government launched its campaign, cut the municipal campaigns off at the stem.

By Tuesday afternoon, Turkish press reports said banks had blocked donations to the campaigns in Istanbul and Ankara.

The move sparked outrage on social media among critics of the Turkish government, who said the block on funds to local campaigns was nearly as extraordinary as a state demanding donations from citizens to deal with a public crisis.

“Our nation is one that makes sacrifices, at times of need we don’t hesitate to give our lives, let alone our wealth,” said Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister who rebelled against the ruling Justice and Development Party to launch a rival party last year.

“But while all other states are giving their citizens money to face the coronavirus, we are gathering money from our citizens,” he said. “Isn’t there something wrong here?”

The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) pointed to the price of a luxury jet Erdoğan purchased from Qatar in 2018.

“Here is a financial source of the ruling AKP, which is collecting money from the people,'' HDP said on Twitter.

The jet worth 2.5 billion lira ($380 million) could cover the cost of 50,000 respirators during the pandemic,it said. 

Following the ministry’s move to block municipal campaigns, the opposition mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, announced that over 94,000 residents had applied for the aid campaign launched by the city council.

“God willing, we will not leave anyone hungry or in need,’’ Mansur said on Twitter.