Why Turkey failed to get behind Erdoğan’s pandemic donation campaign

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a “national solidarity campaign” in late March to offer financial support to those in the country’s lowest-income bracket, who have been the worst hit by the fallout from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

But the campaign has not received the level of attention and support from society that its creators expected. According to the figures announced by Erdoğan, only 1.8 billion lira ($260 million) in donations have been gathered so far.

The majority of these donations have been made by public institutions and businessmen who are close to the government. Public support has been almost non-existent.

So, why has Erdoğan’s national campaign failed to catch on? Several opposition figures say the economic crisis, the polarising language of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the government's pressure on opposition municipalities has contributed to the lack of support for the campaign.

Selçuk Özdağ, the deputy chairman of the opposition Future Party, said that by pressing public institutions, the government had simply transferred public money from one pocket to the other. 

The primary reason for the failure of the campaign was public distrust towards the government, he said, listing various scandals that broke over the last year involving the ruling party and closely linked institutions. 

These included the use of a tax loophole by government-linked businesses to gain tax deductions worth millions of dollars by donating to charities linked to the ruling party through the Turkish Red Crescent. It was also revealed that the government had spent money raised in taxes earmarked for earthquake responses.

Then there was the Interior Ministry’s recent ban on opposition parties running their own COVID-19 fundraising campaigns after Erdoğan accused them of wanting to operate a “parallel state” through their local aid campaigns.

But more to the point, many people have little or no money to donate, Özdağ said. 

"People are already going through a serious economic crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people working in coffee houses, cinemas, theatres and hotels were left unemployed,” he said. “The vast majority of people who depend on daily wages and who earn the minimum wage are in great trouble right now."

But Özdağ also said that it is a question of Erdoğan’s credibility with the public. 
"[He has] been running the country for 18 years. People have been paying taxes. Now, all 83 million citizens of the country need money, but the state has disappeared off the face of the earth. That is why the people are questioning what will come out of their pockets today," he said.

Bülent Küçük, a sociologist from Boğaziçi University, said the lack of support for the national campaign marks a change in philanthropic culture as a form of social capital in Turkey, and this may be linked to a decline of trust in state institutions since 2004.

“There is also a decrease in philanthropy practices with religious motives. For example, the amount of religious donations fell from 57 percent in 2004 to 39 [percent] in 2019. This cannot be explained only by economic factors,” he said. 

According to Küçük, as the AKP has increased its influence in state institutions, it has also withdrawn from civil society. This has been compounded by a lack of trust in state institutions that has raised questions among the public about where money is spent and whether it is being used for personal gain.

“In undemocratic societies, when trust in state institutions decreases, there is also a drop in the desire to be engaged in public benefit in the civil sphere,” Küçük said. “As people’s right to make themselves heard in institutions decreases, so does trust in these institutions.”

Küçük said that Turkey has seen widening deeper divisions between classes and different status groups – even among the government’s own supporters – which has heightened a widespread sense of injustice, and affected social cooperation.

“On the one hand you have a small group of AKP supporters that are increasingly gaining wealth, and on the other hand there is the poor pro-AKP demographic that has been pushed to the outskirts of cities or living in the countryside. This disparity sabotages the sense of cooperation and aid among society,’’ Küçük said.

Küçük maintains that AKP’s traditional voter base is mostly comprised of Turkey’s working class. This segment is neither capable of helping others and has often been forced to seek aid from the government and other organisations. 

Roj Esir Girasun, head of Diyarbakır-based polling company Rawest, sees the lack of support behind the aid campaign as a manifestation of Turkey’s current economic crisis.

“People had the expectation that the state would help them. This is not like other campaigns. For example, it’s not like the kind of campaign led to collect money for the families of fallen soldiers where you can use a nationalist, emotional rhetoric,’’ Roj Esir Girasun said.

The campaign has taken a political turn, according to Girasun – preventing it from gaining legitimacy.

“Actually, [blocking the] the aid campaigns by the opposition CHP municipalities demonstrated the political cowardice of the AKP,’’ Girasun said. “The situation has become so criminal now that the opposition municipalities are accused of wanting to form their autonomous administrations by pursuing their aid drives.”

Pro-government Islamist columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak has said that the aid campaigns had not been sound from the very beginning and that the Gülen movement - led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and accused of orchestrating the July 2016 failed coup attempt - has set a bad precedent in this regard.

“Aiding an organisation linked to the group came to mean that you are a member of said organisation and worked to aid and abet that group,’’ Dilipak said.

Over 77,000 people accused of having links to the group - including some who merely donated to Gülen-linked aid organisations - have been arrested as part of a worldwide crackdown on the group by the Turkish government following the failed coup.

The same thing happened with groups in Turkey who received help from the West ahead of trials related to the 2013 anti-government Gezi protests, Dilipak said - resulting in a reflex among many to remain anonymous when making donations. Dilipak that Erdoğan’s national campaign had also not gained much traction because it had become viewed along partisan lines. 

“Those who saw the campaign as one belonging to Erdoğan and the AKP steered clear of it. This resulted in the state turning to institutions linked to the government to transfer resources into the campaign,’’ Dilipak said.

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