Turkish government sees municipal authorities as enemies in virus reaction

The Turkish government’s own actions give a lie to its call for a national response to the coronavirus pandemic because it is treating major opposition-controlled municipalities like enemies, Istanbul University academic Gürkan Güven Öztan wrote in his column for BirGün daily.

The government has called on Turks to unite in what it calls a “national struggle against a global problem.” But from the start, it has ignored calls from the opposition mayors of the country’s largest cities for stricter restrictions to halt the coronavirus’s spread, Öztan said.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has for weeks demanded a comprehensive lockdown of the city, which is the country’s largest with roughly 20 percent of its population, but which had an estimated 60 percent of known coronavirus infections as of last week.

But the government has so far refrained from a full lockdown, instead imposing curfews on elderly and vulnerable people and then on people under 20-years-old.

If the government had listened to İmamoğlu, Öztan said, “the illness may not have spread this quickly, and the number of deaths would not have climbed to the extent it has. And, sadly, even if a full lockdown is called, it will already be too late.”

While the government has put together a $15 billion stimulus package, this comprised tax breaks and suspensions more than concrete support for millions who have taken a hit from the economic impact of the virus.

The opposition-held Istanbul and Ankara municipalities led donation drives to gather money for the residents most in need during the crisis. But when the government announced its own campaign last week, the Interior Ministry quickly blocked the municipal fund-raising drives, citing a law that says all such campaigns require the government’s permission.

"President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, for the first time during his 18 years in power, been confronted with a crisis that he can’t blame on an enemy and he’s in trouble,” Öztan said, adding that the opposition should continue pressing for government-subsidised paid leave for workers and other measures.

With its latest figures announced on Sunday, Turkey has recorded 27,069 cases and 574 deaths of patients with the coronavirus since the first infection was diagnosed on March 11.