Erdoğan using COVID-19 to consolidate power, columnist says

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is reframing his management of the COVID-19 coronavirus as a success and is seeking to use it to consolidate his power, an analyst writing for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said.

Simon Waldman, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London, said that Erdoğan was doubling down on his authoritarianism during the pandemic by suppressing his political opponents and critics. 

Several journalists have been arrested in recent weeks – including Fatih Portakal, an anchor at Turkey’s Fox News, after he tweeted concerns over Erdoğan’s move to ask citizens to dip into their personal savings to contribute to the government’s coronavirus fund. 

A total of 410 regular citizens have been also taken into custody for posting or sharing material about the coronavirus that contradicted the government’s line, and medical professionals have been arrested and then obliged to make public apologies for opinions that challenged those of the government. A prison amnesty bill to release one-third of all prisoners exempted political activists and journalist, while setting hardened criminals free, Waldman said. 

Although the next general election is not scheduled until 2023, Erdoğan is aware that much of his future electoral success will rest on the way he deals with the COVID-19 crisis, the analyst said. Turkey now has the seventh largest number of infections in the world.

The authorities have also prevented opposition-controlled municipalities from organising fundraising campaigns, as the government wants to take all the credit for alleviating any hardship caused by the coronavirus, said Waldman. 

“When the coronavirus finally recedes and Turks break their isolation to face the economic consequences of the global pandemic, it is almost inevitable that President Erdoğan and his ruling AKP will utilise the state’s coercive powers to suppress critical voices while exploiting the subdued media to present themselves as the country’s saviours, thus providing yet another example for other authoritarians to follow,” Waldman said.