Could coronavirus outbreak rationalise Turkey?

There is an optimism that has grown commonplace among many Turks, who believe in a kind of exceptionalism of their state and its ability to manage crises. But two developments have shown that a positive outlook alone cannot overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

The first is the very rapid rise in the number of coronavirus cases since the first known infection was recorded on March 11, making Turkey one of the countries with the fastest growing rates of infection in the world.

The second is that, while other countries have announced large financial packages to guarantee wages to those who are unable to work during the coronavirus crisis, Turkey has asked its own citizens to contribute donations to a campaign to do the same.

Both of these developments could overturn the comfortable equilibrium the state and the public had reached in Turkey.

The aid campaign in particular has proven to be highly symbolic for various class groups. Low-income citizens are reading it as a sign that the coffers in Turkey have run dry. Businessmen, manufacturers and local tradesmen have an even more alarming reading of the phenomenon – they wonder where the state will find funding in months to come if the money is already gone. Anyone with a stake in the market, from towns to Turkey’s largest cities, will see that the government’s policies have turned against their own interests.

Yet we must acknowledge that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have already considered the possible political risks and the adverse responses from some segments to this campaign. The president clearly launched his campaign not just to raise money, but also as a means of political mobilisation.

This campaign could generate the energy to mobilise for Erdoğan’s base, which is already in a kind of organic/religious relationship with political power. The prayers read from minarets around the country since the beginning of the crisis are a reflection of that.

Everybody knows that there is neither an Islamic nor a scientific basis to seek the cure to an illness through prayers played through loudspeakers on mosques’ minarets. These are, in essence, political actions with a religious veneer. Religion and politics in Turkey are one and the same.

It is clear that Erdoğan takes the support of tradesmen and manufacturers for granted. There are various reasons for this, but at the root of it is the symbiotic relationship the president has formed with these groups over the past decade. This explains why so much cheap credit has been doled out over that period.

Without a doubt, the transfer of funds to the market as cheap credit has played a role in the state reaching a stage today where it must ask for donations from its own citizens. Thus, market players have no other recourse but to swallow their anger – they must do the bidding of the state that has bound them to cheap credit and large public tenders. The market in Turkey at this point has reached the point where it is almost operating as a part of the civil service.

So, the official policy to deal with the coronavirus crisis is a repeat of the religious-nationalist populism we have been experiencing for a long time until now. Because of the magnitude of the problem and its economic impacts, the government will need to increase the dosage of populism all the higher.

Yet whatever happens, it is certain that the economic consequences of the crisis will change the political outlook of at least a segment of citizens.

Erdoğan’s strategy is not to attempt to stop this loss entirely, but to sustain the least possible damage while overcoming the crisis before later regrouping. In other words, he is protecting his position. It follows that his main audience will be the Islamic and nationalist voter bases of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Naturally, this type of policy will create the image of a state and policies that are designed as if all the citizens of Turkey follow the AKP and MHP’s line. Any overarching discourse or identity that embraces all segments of society will completely evaporate. Erdoğan now quotes from the Koran or from a hadith in almost every speech. His coalition partner, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, supports the president according to his own political disposition by defining every situation as an existential issue for nationalists.

As a result, reconciliation grows more distant with each passing day in Turkey, and the schisms are growing between groups differentiated from one another on micro- and macro-levels by their lifestyles, family lives and beliefs.

We must be realistic in politics: the AKP and MHP administration cannot establish an overarching identity that includes secularists and Kurds. Since these groups will never be convinced by the administration’s discourse, they will ultimately have to be governed through political force.

Since the AKP-MHP administration lacks any real problem-solving capability in the mid and the long term, the first rabbit it will pull from its hat will be to use emotional discourse to recruit citizens to prop up the state. It is the fundamental tragedy of Turks that, though the state is in essence a tool, it is they who most of the time find themselves exploited by it.

The second rabbit it will pull out of its hat is a kind of Robin Hood story performed a la Turca. The savings of the few people who do regularly produce and pay their taxes is to be collected by the state and distributed to the allies that props it up, and populism will drive millions of people to willingly support this.

This is a system where mediocre people get to exploit the money and knowledge of the intelligent and skilled. Soon the very skilled and very educated in the country will begin to see themselves as being used like legionaries.

We will have to wait and see whether the coronavirus crisis leads to a change of government in Turkey. What is certain is that the crisis has sheared away a large part of Erdoğan’s political power. Turkey was forced to take a step back last month when it confronted Russia in Idlib, northwest Syria, where Turkish-backed rebels have been battling the Russian-backed Syrian government. Now, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has left Ankara winded. Large-scale crises can strip away in one moment all the swagger a government has accrued over a decade.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.