COVID-19 holds silver lining for Turkey’s Erdoğan

In less than a month, the COVID-19 virus has transformed daily life in the industrialised parts of the world. From work to patterns of consumption, to childcare and welfare provision, there is hardly any area of social life left unimpacted. That might be just the start. A global recession is looming on the horizon which would wreak havoc over Western economies and beyond.

But it is not just economic growth coming under threat. It is becoming abundantly clear that democracy is at peril too. Put simply, governments worldwide will be reluctant to surrender emergency powers they have arrogated in the name of combatting the pandemic.

In democratic systems, emergency situations are supposed to be a temporary fix. Once the storm passes, (hopefully sooner rather than later), executives submit to the usual degree of parliamentary oversight. The courts ensure that authorities do not violate individual and group rights, without facing accusations that they are behaving irresponsibly in the face of a mortal danger. The media holds officials accountable for their actions and decisions. Surveillance or other forms of infringement into the private sphere are permissible in narrow circumstances.

That, unfortunately, is not the world we live in. A glimpse of what may be in store has just come from Hungary. The central European country just saw the passage of emergency legislation tightening Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s grip on power. It introduces jail terms for up to five years for those who disobey measures to curb COVID-19 or spread fake news. The law furthermore allows the government to rule by decree, bypassing parliament. Ordinances can be reviewed solely by the Constitutional Court, which Orbán packed with loyalists much earlier in his tenure starting in 2010. Lastly, the legislation rules out any by-elections or referendums. With the next legislative polls due in 2022 and no “sunset clause” setting a time-limit to the exceptional measures in question, Orbán is practically downgrading whatever checks and balances are still in place in Hungary. Will he let go of the extra authority he assumed when it is all over?

Hungary may be an exceptional case, in the sense that it has been backsliding over a decade. But others in the European Union, particularly in central and eastern Europe where democratic governance has shallow roots, may be tempted to follow suit. Orbán is a role model for many, not least for the centre-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) which is in charge of Poland. The EU institutions would find it hard to censure power grabs, given that exceptional measures are billed as temporary and that “core Europe” is similarly implementing restrictions. The coronavirus provides the perfect alibi.

How is this relevant to Turkey? In a sense, its story differs from that of Hungary. COVID-19 is unlikely to further empower Erdoğan. Thanks to the introduction of the executive presidential system in 2018, he is already the undisputed master of the country he has been running since 2002. There is little by way of checks and balances left to dismantle after two years of emergency rule from 2016 to 2018, some elements of which remain embedded in the legislation. Of course, the authorities are using the crisis in order to undermine the opposition mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu. Yet, overall, coronavirus is a threat to regime stability rather than an opportunity to expand control over society.

But there is another side of the coin. The ongoing erosion of democracy across the world is likely to get worse, especially if the pandemic triggers a severe economic downturn. Established democratic regimes in the West are struggling in the face of surging populism and nativism. It is far from clear who will win from this new round triggered by COVID-19: the mainstream or the authoritarian populists. In any case, the global environment is becoming more permissible for the kind of political systems like Turkey’s. Erdoğan is likely to receive less and less criticism from outside for what he is doing at home if large Western countries find themselves on a similar trajectory.

The Turkish president knows that well: his charm offensive vis-à-vis Donald Trump paid off handsomely, to the dismay of Turkey-sceptics in the U.S. Congress, the media and the think-tank circuit. The same dynamic is at play in relations with Europe. A recession-hit EU where leaders such an Emmanuel Macron scramble to retain office and fend off the far-right would be far less nosey about Turkey’s internal business. Pro-democracy activists in the European Parliament will be focusing on challenges closer to home than righting the wrongs in Europe’s neighbourhood. China’s soft power overtures are a much greater headache than Turkey, whose capacity to project influence or disrupt is not as extensive, as the relative ease by which its gambit of sending thousands of refugees to Europe’s border last month showed.

Erdoğan may be concerned about COVID-19, but the virus has a silver lining for him, too.

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