1 July 2020
COVID-19 BLOG SERIES: HOW EUROPE HAS RESPONDED TO THE CRISIS
It is undeniable that we are undergoing unprecedented global change with the COVID-19 pandemic and these will have unpredictable political consequences for years to come. What will the winds of change bring to Turkey and to its personalistic regime?
There are two ways to answer this question. One way is to look at Turkey’s record in fighting against COVID-19 and the other is tracing political developments since the beginning of the outbreak. In both counts, Turkey appears to be quite stable. But looks can be deceiving. High tides under water have been kept at bay so far, however, 18 years of rule by the AKP has cultivated its simmering opposition that will only grow in time.
Measures against COVID-19
Turkey has had a total of just over 186,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 22nd June, making it the 11th most affected country in the world. Despite the high number of confirmed cases, its death rate remains significantly lower than other European countries, including countries like France and Belgium that appear to have fewer cases. Comparing the absolute number of confirmed cases across different countries is fraught with difficulties and all caveats around these figures need be kept in mind. Still# the relative success of Turkey begs clarification.
There is no simple explanation for lower death rates. There are still many unknowns about the nature of the virus that might explain Turkey’s statistics from a medical perspective. Certainly, Turkey’s demographics are in its favour – only eight percent of its population is over the age of 65 and most do not stay in care homes. Compare this to the EU average of 20% elderly population, or even higher in badly affected Italy, or consider the fact that in April alone official COVID-19 deaths in care homes in the UK were nearly twice as much as overall deaths in Turkey.
What of more short-term factors that were within the control of political leaders, notably when and to what extent to go into lockdown? Turkey’s approach to lockdown lies somewhere in the middle of a ‘restrictive-liberal’ continuum. It shut down schools and imposed a full curfew on the elderly and on children. It has also introduced a full lockdown on weekends and holidays. But if you were a Turkish citizen between the age of 20 and 65 or if you were working, it has been more or less business as usual, at least during the weekdays. Given this mixed approach that prioritised the economy, it is probably unlikely that curfew measures were what made the difference in death rates in Turkey.
Rather than lockdown, it would seem that Turkey’s success might be more to do with its healthcare system that was relatively well-placed to deal with the crisis. The number of Intensive Care Unit beds in Turkey is four times more than Italy and nearly eight times more than the UK. This is, in part, down to the policies of the government in the past years. Some of these earlier policies, such as building city hospitals, have been controversial because they rest on neoliberal principles and reflect the extent of crony capitalism in Turkey. But in the combat against coronavirus, they have provided the capacity to admit suspected patients immediately, even before test results, and start aggressive treatment, even with the controversial drug of hydroxychloroquine. Also contact-tracing was introduced very quickly that tests patients within a day and notifies and monitors those with whom suspected cases have been in touch.
No matter where the real reason for Turkey’s low death rates lies, the government has been able to capitalise on the pandemic, increase its prestige abroad through supplying medical aid and tout the comparatively low death rates as a success. Although this trend can be reversed with the easing of lockdown measures and a new spike in cases, Ankara has managed to hold firm against the winds of change thanks to its seeming success in containing the virus so far.
Recent Political Developments
One of the major political consequences of the outbreak globally has been the way personal liberties had to be curtailed. The pandemic has led to illiberal policies everywhere with more than 80 countries declaring a state of emergency. Leaders are taking the opportunity to grab more power even in well-established democracies and it is unclear whether and when liberties will be returned to people.
Turkey has not been an exception to this global drift. Some of the political decisions that were made during the pandemic reflect earlier trends, mixed with new opportunities. For instance, around 90,000 convicts were granted an amnesty to prevent the spread of the virus in jails but political prisoners were exempted from the pardon. Opposition local governments in Istanbul and Ankara were forbidden from accepting donations from citizens to raise funds and distribute supplies to those who were in need. Five elected heads of local districts from the main Kurdish political party (HDP) were removed from office and the impunity of lawmakers were lifted paving the way for the prosecution of HDP MPs.
Centralising power by the ruling AKP and efforts to side-line political opposition are not new in Turkey. Although they might have been accelerated with the outbreak, they have also produced renewed opposition and initiatives, bringing in the potential of change amid seeming stability. For instance, there has been a cabinet crisis over the way curfew was initially introduced, which points at possible future fissures within the AKP government. There also seems to be an increase in the popularity of recently founded AKP-splinter parties. A recent poll also revealed that public trust toward Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş surpassed that of President Erdoğan. Finally, the HDP started a new campaign and has held rallies, despite government-imposed restrictions and COVID-19 related constraints.
Turkey has had a mixed record during the pandemic. If the death rates continue as they are, it is a positive case that needs to be acknowledged. However, this accomplishment should not distract from the general political trends of the recent years. For now, the pandemic seems to have brought more political stability than prospects for change. It is difficult to predict what will happen in a couple of years but, as in the anti-racism protests elsewhere, in Turkey too, the pandemic has brought its own dynamics of unforeseen transformation.