Erdogan Under Pressure to Impose Lockdown as Coronavirus Spreads in Turkey

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a business meeting in Istanbul, Thursday, May 18, 2017. Turkey has told the United States it will not join in any military operations that include Kurdish fighters in Syria, Erdogan said Thursday, while vowing to strike the U.S.-backed Kurds if they threaten Turkey's security.(Presidency …
Presidency Press Service/AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under increasing pressure to impose a full lockdown as coronavirus cases mount in his country.

Erdogan has ordered some restrictions on travel and public gatherings and instructed the public to wear masks but has so far resisted calls for a lockdown, fearing the effect it would have on Turkey’s economy.

As Kurdish news service Rudaw reported on Wednesday, coronavirus infections are skyrocketing in Turkey, even though travel has been discouraged, schools are closed, vulnerable elderly people are under confinement orders, large gatherings are prohibited, and some local quarantines have been imposed:

With 34,109 cases and 725 deaths, according to official figures published on Tuesday, Turkey is the ninth country in the world most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s alarming is the fast spread of the disease in Turkey, which reported its first official case on March 11. The number of cases is doubling in every few days: From 7,400 on March 28, it reached 15,000 on April 1 and exceeded 30,000 on Monday, according to official figures.

The Turkish legislature is currently debating a bill that would release about a third of the inmates from crowded Turkish prisons, similar to desperate measures taken in many other countries hit hard by the Wuhan virus.

Turkish medical experts and opposition politicians are urging a full lockdown, since nearly even step short of a lockdown has been taken, and cases are still piling up fast enough to strain Turkey’s intensive care capacity:

On Tuesday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said in a reassuring tone that the occupancy rate in the intensive care units was only around 60 percent.

But as the number of victims soars, there have been increasing calls on the government to impose a complete confinement like in Italy or France.

“Everyone absolutely has to stay at home, it must be made compulsory,” a doctor who treats infected patients under intensive care at an Istanbul hospital told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“We are receiving more and more patients every day. We will soon reach the limits of our capacity.”

The opposition parties, the country’s main medical association TTB and unions have also urged the government to take tougher measures to deter people from going out.

“It will be impossible to control this pandemic if millions of people … go out to work,” the president of the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB), Sinan Adiyaman, told the Turkish media this week.

In an interview with AFP last week, the opposition mayor of Istanbul called for a confinement in the country’s economic capital where more than half of the COVID-19 cases have been recorded.

“Even if 15 percent of the population goes out, we quickly reach two million people … This has the potential to increase the threat.”

The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, is a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). He is seen as a potential rival for the presidency and is among the most outspoken critics of Erdogan’s coronavirus response. Last week, he launched a fundraising campaign for coronavirus victims called “We Will Succeed Together.” Erdogan responded by kicking off his own “National Solidarity” campaign with a personal donation equal to seven months of his presidential salary. 

Erdogan’s administration then declared Imamoglu’s campaign illegal and threatened to arrest participants. Erdogan himself suggested Imamoglu’s coronavirus campaign was a seditious effort to undermine the government. Eleven city mayors belonging to Imamoglu’s party pushed back with a public call for the administration to back down and leave the We Will Succeed Together campaign alone.

Erdogan explained his reluctance to order a lockdown last week by saying he felt “obliged to continue producing and keep the wheels turning under any circumstances.”

The Turkish president seems no closer to conceding that a lockdown might be necessary. On Wednesday, he praised Turkey’s “healthcare army” and declared “no virus is stronger than Turkey.” He claimed Turkey was one of the nations best prepared to defeat the coronavirus, thanks to two decades of reforms implemented by his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

An analysis at Al-Monitor on Monday argued that imposing a lockdown would be politically impossible for Erdogan at this point because the coronavirus has become a battleground for AKP against rising opposition parties and rivals like Imamoglu. Erdogan may not be able to afford to admit they were right all along:

Underlying the crisis is the debacle that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered in last year’s local elections. The opposition won the mayoral races in Turkey’s main urban centers, including Ankara and Istanbul, dealing Erdogan the biggest setback in his political career. The loss of Istanbul, where Erdogan served as a mayor in the 1990s, was especially hard to swallow for the president, who forced a rerun of the vote, only to see his candidate lose with a bigger margin. 

Since then, Erdogan has sought to restrict the powers of local administrations in big cities, while the highly popular mayors of Ankara and Istanbul — both members of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) — have often found themselves in the squeeze of AKP-dominated municipal assemblies. 

Al-Monitor noted Erdogan’s effort to crush Imamoglu’s charity campaign by declaring it illegal was a blatantly obvious political ploy since numerous Islamic groups aligned with AKP have been running similar campaigns without legal hassles. Meanwhile, insiders say public employees and teachers have been effectively required to donate to Erdogan’s charity, in some cases instructed by their supervisors or union representatives to present bank receipts proving that they made timely donations.

In an even more blatant example of politicization, medical aid Turkey shipped to Spain and Italy last week arrived in boxes labeled as personal gifts from Erodgan rather than shipments from the Turkish republic, the first time international aid from Turkey has ever been labeled that way. Al-Monitor speculated Erdogan’s politicization of the virus has become so ham-fisted, and the spread of the disease so troubling, that it might backfire against AKP and further strengthen the opposition.

Foreign Policy (FP) argued on Wednesday that, contrary to Erdogan’s boasts about AKP reforms helping Turkey become uniquely powerful against the coronavirus, Erdogan’s “years of political and economic mismanagement” have made Turkey one of the most vulnerable emerging markets and Erodgan is correct to fear utter economic ruin if he orders a lockdown.

Turkey already has one of the world’s worst pandemic trajectories, and FP noted there is good reason to suspect Erdogan’s government is covering up the true extent of infections and deaths. Relentless political purges after the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan left thousands of medical professionals languishing on blacklists, including top virus expert Mustafa Ulasli, who was punished for links to exiled imam and alleged coup mastermind Fethullah Gulen. A number of military hospitals were decommissioned after the coup that would come in handy today.

From an economic standpoint, FP noted that Turkey was already having trouble financing its public debt before the pandemic struck, the currency is depreciating, foreign revenues are crashing, and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak – who happens to be Erdogan’s son-in-law – has a habit of making upbeat growth forecasts that leave foreign investors and international bankers wondering what planet he lives on. The “charity drive” Erdogan launched to compete with Imamoglu looks suspiciously like a covert attempt to finance the kind of coronavirus economic stimulus program Ankara simply cannot afford.

FP saw Erdogan’s behavior as deeply troubling to investors, noting that he went from loudly beating war drums in Syria and Libya to relative media invisibility in a few weeks, and seems far more preoccupied with consolidating power, undermining the rise of rival politicians, suppressing unflattering news coverage, and avoiding blame for coronavirus deaths than he does with protecting the health of his citizens.


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