Presidential system impairs Turkey's response to corona outbreak

In 2018, Turkey shifted to a presidential system of government that concentrated all executive powers in the hands of one person and awarded him sweeping legislative powers and direct influence over the judiciary.

In introducing the new political system, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged to accelerate and improve policy-making process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles. He said this, in turn, would help tackle the security and economic problems facing the country and make Turkey a super-power by 2023, its centenary year. 

However, in its second year, the presidential system has exacerbated Turkey's chronic problems. It has led to poor macroeconomic performance relative to its peers, and Turkey's security concerns have been aggravated, not alleviated. The introduction of untried policies and a divergence from economic orthodoxy - a result of the undermining of the consultation process - played a key role in this regression.

Public participation in policy formulation, such as the constitutional Economic and Social Council, helped Turkey respond successfully to the 2001 and 2008 financial crises. After the introduction of the presidential system, policy-making procedures have been centralised and became untransparent.

Due to Turkey’s unsatisfactory and controversial responses to the coronavirus outbreak, the demerits of the presidential system are now in focus.

Autocratic regimes are typically expected to employ draconian war-time measures to fight with a virus outbreak more effectively, as China and India did. However, in the case of Turkey, the opposite has happened. The Turkish government responded in a mild manner while the public urged for more drastic measures. Hence, Turkey could not use its autocratic regime to its advantage in imposing policy.

The Turkish government and the public were too optimistic at the onset of the pandemic. In January, the Health Ministry founded a Science Council, composed of dozens of academics, to determine the measures it would take against the outbreak.

According to official figures, Turkey was affected by the coronavirus later than many of its neighbours. Pro-government commentators and members of the public piled credit on the Erdoğan administration. The same people also cited Turks’ superior hygiene rituals and even Turkish genes, which they said were resistant to the illness.

But after the government reported the first case of COVID-19 on March 11, the pandemic spread swiftly. After that, meetings of the Science Council attracted enormous public interest. However, the public could not hear the recommendations of the council directly. It first submitted them to Erdoğan and only those he deemed appropriate were enforced. Erdoğan then frequently refrained from announcing the measures he approved to the public directly, leaving that job to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca.

There was an inevitable delay in policy response as Erdoğan’s permission was required at every step, and there is no direct horizontal policy-dialogue channel between ministries under Turkey’s presidential system. The only and ultimate decision-maker is Erdoğan, even on trivial matters. Ministers cannot take the initiative as they feel accountable to Erdoğan, not to the public. 

Turkey’s strict, vertical decision-making system prevents it from drawing fully on the experience and skills of public agencies. For examples, a key weapon for Turkey would be to make the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD), affiliated with the Interior Ministry, a frontline organisation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a direct channel to the Health Ministry and Science Council, AFAD's experience could be key to enforcing quarantines and providing supplementary services to health professionals such as accommodation and transportation.

A degree of flexibility and autonomy at the technical level for middle and upper-level public officials is critical for uninterrupted and apolitical service provision during such an unprecedented crisis. Leaving technocrats aside, even ministers lack such authority with the centralisation of power in Turkey, and most of them are keeping a low profile.   

Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, as a member of Erdoğan’s family, is an exception to this rule. Albayrak, Erdoğan's son in law, often refers to cross-ministerial issues and sometimes acts like a prime minister. He can persuade Erdoğan easily. Thus, he can prioritise responses and take the initiative in policy making without the fear of being labeled as disloyal.

However, Albayrak also has conflicting functions such as managing both public finances and public debt, as well as maintaining the well-being of large companies close to the Erdoğan family.

In 2018 and 2019, Albayrak worked hard to improve the cash balances of the Treasury by delaying payments to small and medium sized contractors and imposing fiscal austerity. But he also amended large Public-Private Partnership (PPP) contracts, awarded to government cronies, generously and made payments under them in a very timely manner.

In the fight against the corona outbreak, most of the measures personally advocated by members of the Science Council, like curfews and large-scale quarantines, are either not implemented or are implemented with a delay mainly due to their economic costs.

The government is prioritising economic concerns over public health, perhaps partially due to Albayrak’s influence over Erdoğan.

Before the introduction of Turkey’s presidential system in 2018, the health minister’s statements and views would probably have dominated cabinet meetings. Now, it is unclear whether Koca can communicate with other ministers at all. Meanwhile, following every Science Council meeting, Koca thanks Erdoğan and Albayrak personally for their efforts.

As far as the economy is concerned, the government's emergency aid package of 100 billion liras ($15 billion), announced earlier in March, falls far short of addressing the concerns and expectations of employers, workers and low-income families.

The Turkish people expect a message similar to those given by the Canadian, French and British governments, i.e., "Don't worry about your finances, just stay home". However, the government’s measures thus far have almost totally failed to compensate people who cannot work because of the outbreak. A more comprehensive set of public health measures such as tighter curfews would in turn require a more comprehensive financial response from the government and would have to address such shortfalls.  

A moderate financial response, if maintainable, is clearly an ideal one for Albayrak and Erdoğan. It keeps the budget deficit at manageable levels and means they can continue to finance the PPPs without a hitch via Treasury guarantees. In turn, the companies involved will be shielded against the current crisis and can even make a profit as their revenues are entirely foreign exchange based Additionally, some of their costs are in lira, which has been depreciating fast.