COVID-19: A Blessing or a Curse for Turkey’s Authoritarian Incumbents?

By Özgür Erkarslan and Isabella Wilkinson

On the morning of April 11, 2020, the Turkish Minister of Internal Affairs Süleyman Soylu delivered his resignation to the president and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Recep Tayyip Erdogan amid the gross mismanagement of the introduction of a national curfew to curb the advancing COVID-19 crisis. Just hours later, Erdogan’s Directorate of Communications released a statement rejecting such an “unsuitable” resignation. Soylu remains in office.

On the surface, this disagreement may appear as the result of bureaucratic oversight or even just an example of predictable, ordinary political miscommunication. But Turkish politics are anything but predictable, and the current health crisis which the nation is facing is anything but ordinary. Soylu’s attempted resignation is diagnostic of a deeper and graver issue manifesting itself in the shadows of Turkey’s crisis management in the age of COVID-19. 

In fact, President Erdogan is facing two viruses, which under the right (or the wrong) circumstances could prove lethal. The first is a virus we have grown to know all too well. COVID-19 has claimed 3,894 lives already within Turkish borders,1 although data compiled by The New York Times suggests that the toll is likely much higher.2 But the second virus keeping Erdogan awake at night is a crisis of confidence and legitimacy within his own party. Soylu’s attempted exit from the AKP is symptomatic of a loss of internal party discipline and unity, among other things.

Turkish politics have been infected by Erdogan’s personalistic dictatorship for nearly two decades. This long-term illness has claimed a host of victims, from critical journalists and opposition politicians, to chances of EU membership and the strength of the Turkish lira. Despite a couple of bumps along the road to consolidated authoritarianism in recent years (see the 2019 mayoral election in Istanbul, for instance), the Erdogan regime remains strong.

Whether the regime is strong enough to weather the storm of COVID-19 is another question entirely. This is a watershed moment for a regime on the precipice of authoritarianism. The pandemic crisis presents the Erdogan regime with unprecedented opportunities and previously unimaginable obstacles. Using the paradigm of (competitive) authoritarianism to understand this critical balance of opportunities and obstacles may help scholars and policymakers alike understand what this crisis really means not only for Erdogan and the AKP, but more importantly the lives and livelihoods of Turkish people.

1,440,671 tests, 141,475 cases and 3,894 COVID-19 deaths in Turkey (12 May 2020)

Opportunities for Authoritarianism

The COVID-19 crisis presents the Erdogan regime with a host of opportunities to strengthen authoritarian governance. The developments of the past few weeks are a case in point. On April 4, the Erdogan government launched a fundraising campaign aiming to provide cash assistance and relief to low-income families in the country. Following a similar strategy, the newly elected mayors of Istanbul and Ankara created bank accounts for donations at theƒpr municipal level. These accounts were swiftly blocked by the AKP-dominated Grand National Assembly; Erdogan accused the mayors of attempting to create a state within a state.3 Why? Istanbul and Ankara were lost by the AKP to opposition party candidates from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the municipal elections of 2019. Exploiting municipal crisis-response actions to create the impression of weak governance represents a golden opportunity for Erdogan to gain back valuable political ground lost to the opposition’s hard-fought municipal victories.

From left to right: Tunc Soyer (Mayor of Izmir), Mansur Yavas (Mayor of Ankara), Ekrem Imamoglu (Mayor of Istanbul)

From left to right: Tunc Soyer (Mayor of Izmir), Mansur Yavas (Mayor of Ankara) and Ekrem Imamoglu (Mayor of Istanbul), all representatives of the CHP

On April 13, the parliament passed a bill to release 90,000 prisoners to cope with overcrowding in prisons, thus reducing the spread of COVID-19. However, onlookers were quick to note that the bill selectively excluded persecuted critical journalists, human rights advocates, and academics.4 The amnesty bill was passed with full support from both the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), due to an uneasy alliance between the two. Given that many released prisoners were former MHP voters, this legislative manoeuvre releases the critical voter base for the incumbents from Europe’s most overcrowded prison system, while keeping potential opposition voters behind bars.

As CHP party spokesperson Selin Sayek Böke noted, the lockdown and social distancing imperative can be exploited as an instrument to bolster authoritarian governance, by suspending participatory channels and tightening media control. Since March, 410 people have been detained for provocative social media posts regarding the government’s crisis response.5 Civil society groups are barred from holding meetings and parliamentary activities, aside from high-priority discussions, and have been suspended without substitute. In the meantime, bills passed in parliament are done so without accountability or inclusivity; for instance, the Price Control Committee now has the power to invoke terorrism charges against stockpilers.6 Given the AKP’s control over Turkey’s media environment,7 the political motivations of the AKP’s crisis response have received little to no national attention.

Understanding the ways in which the Erdogan regime has seized the opportunities created by the COVID-19 crisis to bolster authoritarianism requires a brief dive into political theory on competitive authoritarianism. Competitive authoritarian regimes are those in which democracy exists on paper, yet not in practice. As explained by scholars Levitsky and Way,8 elections are regularly held, yet the playing field is always skewed in favour of the incumbents, due to the politicisation of electoral institutions and unequal access to media and electoral resources. Competition is real, but warped. In order to sustain incumbent dominance, competitive authoritarian regimes work to limit civil space, strategically suppress media freedoms, and curb individual liberties in order to limit, yet not eradicate, a veritable opposition. Competitive authoritarian regimes choreograph pay-offs to regime loyalists in business and bureaucracy to maintain their incumbency.

As acclaimed Turkish academic Professor Berk Esen explained, Turkey is a veritable case study in competitive authoritarianism and democratic backsliding.9 Turkey’s institutional environment has been gradually yet specifically designed to support the incumbent AKP and Erdogan’s personalist dictatorship. The national switch to a presidentialist system in 2017 created an empowered presidency that concentrated power in the executive branch at the expense of legislative and bureaucratic autonomy, thus institutionalising Erdogan’s de facto personalism.10

Some onlookers may voice doubts: after all, the transition to presidentialism was ratified by a referendum. Indeed, Turkey regularly holds elections. Yet these elections are plagued by serious violations of political rights and civil liberties. On the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index11 and Freedom House Index,12 Turkey has been sliding into authoritarian practices for the past decade. Since 2018, Freedom House has classified Turkey as “Not Free,” due to the steady erosion of the rule of law, persecution of the political opposition, lack of safeguards against corruption, and clampdowns on the freedom of speech and association. In addition, the AKP’s competitive authoritarian governance strategies are particularly sobering in light of the regime’s growing capacity for restricting Internet freedom and curbing digital rights.13

Looking back to Turkey’s recent political history, it is clear that crisis conditions enable Turkey’s incumbents to bolster their control over politics and society. By some measures, Turkey is considered shockproof: it emerged from the 2008 recession with its voter base intact, leading to a strong electoral victory in 2011.14 Following the attempted coup in July 2016, Erdogan retained a state of emergency for two years, during which time the AKP was thoroughly purged of liberals and moderates, and over 100,000 people were detained, with approximately 50,000 arrests.15 Turkey’s remaining independent media outlets were systematically closed, and a record number of critical journalists were imprisoned. In fact, since 2016, Turkey is the world’s top jailer of journalists.16 Despite this, in the weeks after the coup, Erdogan’s popularity ratings reached unprecedented levels: 68 percent, a record only challenged by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk17. Erdogan emerged from the attempted coup stronger than ever, and so did Turkey’s nascent competitive authoritarianism.

It is clear that crisis conditions create an enabling environment for bolstering authoritarianism. As Esen emphasised, catastrophes enable authoritarian leaders to reap benefits from the uncertainty. Before the crisis, the playing field of politics was deeply imbalanced, yet still open. Amid the suspension of democratic participatory channels and the clampdowns on civil society activities, the playing field is now closed. Yet the COVID-19 crisis also poses a host of difficulties for the AKP, many of which warrant close attention.

Challenges to Authoritarianism

The COVID-19 crisis has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of challenges for the Erdogan regime, which may, in certain circumstances, undermine the AKP’s incumbency. 

First and foremost, the crisis has exacerbated Turkey’s long-term structural issues, particularly social inequalities, corruption, and economic instability. Although the AKP’s early years gave onlookers and citizens alike for improved governance and economic stability, in recent years the incumbent party’s policies have deeply entrenched Turkey’s pre-existing structural problems. On the one hand, networks of patronage have thrived, and perceptions of corruption have reached a low of 39/100.18 On the other hand, since 2014, the Turkish lira has  been devalued by 172 percent. The AKP has contributed to, if not actively created, an “extractive” regime. Yet the regime has become a monster of their own creation, and today means that the AKP faces a crisis of performance legitimacy, as its early political brand of good governance and economic stability has been eroded beyond recognition. The platform upon which the AKP was elected no longer exists, but thanks to Erdogan’s populist pivot, it remains incredibly popular. This gap between legitimacy and governance is, to put it simply, a dangerous one. 

Chairman for the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) in Istanbul and visiting Carnegie Europe scholar Sinan Ülgen drew attention to the fact that, if COVID-19 can be contained within the next month or so, Turkey may escape with recoverable economic damage. But if the virus continues to spread, Erdogan and the AKP’s crisis management will be tested to the extreme, particularly given that Turkey does not possess the resources to weather the storm: Turkey’s COVID-19 relief package constitutes under 7 percent of its GDP, while, for comparison, Germany’s is valued at 27 percent of its GDP. Although Turkey’s healthcare system has improved in quality and accessibility in recent years, healthcare spending as a share of GDP in Turkey remains the lowest among OECD member countries.19 Debt relief from the IMF or ECB presents the incumbent regime with a solution. However, in rhetoric and practice, Erdogan is hostile to external support; turning to the IMF would represent a “loss of face” for Erdogan,20 leaving Turkey with no other choice but to brace for the destabilising economic consequences of the crisis, not to mention the civil unrest that will likely follow the release of 90,000 convicted criminals.

The pandemic crisis threatens to overwhelm the regime on several fronts. COVID-19 will aggravate pre-existing structural problems and public frustrations may boil over the tight lid of AKP authoritarianism. As Böke explained, until the gravity of structural inequalities, corruption, and economic recession are directly experienced by Turkish citizens, the regime still retains power over the crisis narrative. If the opposition can rush to fill governance gaps and provide social assistance programs to those in need, it would truncate a disaffected AKP voter base and increase their own popularity. Legislatively, opposition party MPs represent over 65 percent of Turkey’s GDP.21 While the CHP’s ability to execute these programs is limited by AKP legislative blocks, if affiliated informal political and civil groups can retain sufficient resources and capacities to rise to the occasion, pro-democracy actors may take advantage of the window of opportunity thrust open by the AKP’s political uncertainties amid the crisis.

Crisis conditions present another dagger to the regime, aimed at the heart of the AKP’s incumbency. By some measures, the AKP is more divided and disenfranchised than ever before. While the 2017 referendum bolstered Erdogan’s enhanced presidency, it did so at the cost of the AKP’s autonomy in parliament and state institutions. In addition, the constant intra-party purges on the premise of renewal or even national security has disenfranchised many former AKP loyalists. For this reason, as Esen noted in his 2018 study of Turkish presidentialism,22 the cost of defection for AKP voters has reached a critical low point. More importantly (given that elections are not planned until 2023), there is a possibility of elite defection.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu (right)

This incumbent profile provides the necessary backdrop to gaining a deeper understanding of Soylu’s attempted resignation, and what it reveals about the Erdogan regime. Although it is challenging to speculate what happens behind closed doors, Ülgen suggested that the scuffle proved the promise of Soylu’s political power. Having his noble resignation rejected by the President has granted him the unique opportunity to rise within the AKP. Why would Erdogan endorse Soylu so strongly? Faced with the uncertainties of the pandemic crisis, Erdogan’s top priority is retaining incumbency by maintaining AKP party unity. It is strategically critical to present himself and the party as more disciplined and consolidated than ever before. When Soylu took to Twitter to bear full responsibility for poorly-led crisis management23, it brutally revealed the mismatch in the AKP’s politics and accountability. To this end, Soylu is much more dangerous outside of the party than he is within it. For an incumbent regime faced with governance and legitimacy crises, resignation may be akin to defection.

Looking Ahead

The question of Turkey’s crisis authoritarianism is by no means an isolated one. Globally, the effects of the pandemic threaten democratic values and processes as countries build walls, turn towards isolationism, and play blame games on the international stage.24 On the one hand, authoritarian governments may thrive in this environment, and jump at the opportunity to bury political and media threats to the regime. Voters may turn increasingly to the comforts of populism, protectionism and xenophobia, bolstering authoritarian counter-norms to liberal democracy.25

On the other hand, and particularly in the MENA region, Arab Center fellow Charles Dunne notes that authoritarian response models — characterised by secrecy, top-down policies, and tight control over the media — may actually hamper their effectiveness. The pandemic crisis is already a performance-legitimacy crisis, as many newly authoritarian governments have come to the sober realisation that they simply do not possess the resources or the political strength to survive the crisis unscathed by public blame.

As demonstrated, the crisis is a blessing and a curse for the Erdogan regime. For now, policymakers and scholars should pay close attention to the regime’s gambits over the next few weeks and months. If the regime falters and there is indeed a window of opportunity for political change, we should encourage the capacity-building of pro-democratic political leaders and civil society actors to imprint accountability and inclusivity into Turkey’s post-pandemic recovery.

Democracy and authoritarianism aside, the priority should be placed on Turkish lives and livelihoods. As of May 2020, Turkey is the seventh-most affected country in the world. Erdogan and the AKP have a not-so-democratically elected responsibility to Turkish citizens to prioritise their survival over that of the regime. At this moment, reaching out to external organisations like the IMF and the ECB for a lifeline is both necessary and politically benign for Erdogan, albeit slightly ironic given his political rhetoric. In the time of COVID-19, stranger things have happened.

The authors would like to extend their thanks to Selin Sayek Böke, Professor Berk Esen and Sinan Ülgen for their valuable insights in interviews conducted between April and May 2020.

Özgür Erkarslan is a Fulbright Scholar at Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy, who is interested in social provisions, comparative welfare states and Turkish socio-economic development. Özgür graduated from Bilkent University and holds a B.A in Political Science and Public Administration. 

Isabella Wilkinson is an M.A. student in the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on global authoritarianism and emerging digital threats to democratic governance. Isabella graduated from the London School of Economics with a B.A. in International Relations and History.

1 “Türkiye’deki Güncel Durum,” T.C Sağlık Bakanlığı, accessed May 12, 2020, https://covid19.saglik.gov.tr/.

2 Carlotta Gall, “Istanbul Death Toll Hints Turkey is Hiding a Wider Coronavirus Calamity,” The New York Times, April 20, 2020,https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/20/world/middleeast/coronavirus-turkey-deaths.html.

3 Hamdi Firat Buyuk, “Recep Erdogan wins by landslide in Turkey’s general election,” The Guardian, April 1, 2020,https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/01/turkish-president-accuses-municipalities-of-forming-parallel-state/.

4 “Turkey amnesty bill would release 90,000 prisoners, but no journalists”, Committee to Protect Journalists, last modified April 7, 2020,https://cpj.org/2020/04/turkey-amnesty-bill-would-release-90000-prisoners-.php.

5 Gall, “Istanbul Death Toll.”

6 “Türkiye Varlık Fonu borç yaratan bir kuruma dönüştü,” Sol Gazete, last modified April 28, 2020,https://sol.org.tr/haber/turkiye-varlik-fonu-borc-yaratan-bir-kuruma-donustu-2905.

7 Dorian Jones, “Turkey’s Ruling Party Extends Control Over Media,” VOA News, March 23, 2018,https://www.voanews.com/europe/turkeys-ruling-party-extends-control-over-media.

8 Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

9 Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly, no. 37 (February 2016): 1581-1606,https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2015.1135732.

10 Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “The Perils of Turkish Presidentialism” Review of Middle East Studies, no. 52 (April 2018): 43-53,https://doi.org/10.1017/rms.2018.10.

11 “Electoral Integrity Index,” Electoral Integrity Project, accessed May 12, 2020,https://www.electoralintegrityproject.com/.

12 “Freedom House Index,” Freedom House, accessed May 12, 2020,https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-world/2020.

13 “Turkey: Crackdown on Social Media Posts Detention, Prosecutions Over Criticisms of Turkish Army Actions in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, last modified March 27, 2018,https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/27/turkey-crackdown-social-media-posts.

14 Constanze Letsch, “Turkish President Accuses Municipalities of Forming ‘Parallel State’,” Balkan Insight, June 12, 2011,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/13/recep-erdogan-turkey-general-election.

15 Howard Eissenstat, “Erdoğan as Autocrat: A Very Turkish Tragedy,” POMED, April 12, 2017,https://pomed.org/pomed-report-erdogan-as-autocrat-a-very-turkish-tragedy/.

16 Elena Beiser, “Record number of journalists jailed as Turkey, China, Egypt pay scant price for repression,” CPJ, December 13, 2017,https://cpj.org/reports/2017/12/journalists-prison-jail-record-number-turkey-china-egypt.php.

17 Christopher de Bellaigue, “Welcome to demokrasi: how Erdoğan got more popular than ever,” The Guardian, August 30, 2016,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/30/welcome-to-demokrasi-how-erdogan-got-more-popular-than-ever.

18 “2019 CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX SHOWS ANTI-CORRUPTION EFFORTS STAGNATING IN G7 COUNTRIES,” Transparency International, last modified January 23, 2020, https://www.transparency.org/en/press/2019-cpi-efforts-stagnate-in-g7#.

19 “Country Note: How does health spending in TURKEY compare?,” OECD, last modified July 7, 2015,https://www.oecd.org/health/health-systems/Country-Note-TURKEY-OECD-Health-Statistics-2015.pdf.

20 Bobby Ghosh, “Erdogan Should Break His IMF Taboo,” Bloomberg, April 19, 2020,https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-04-20/turkey-s-erdogan-should-break-his-taboo-on-imf-aid.

21 Marc Pierini, “Options for the EU-Turkey Relationship,” Carnegie Europe, May 3, 2019,https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/05/03/options-for-eu-turkey-relationship-pub-79061.

22 Esen, and Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey,”.

23 Suleyman Soylu (@suleymansoylu), “Sokağa çıkma yasağı ile ilgili sorumluluğumuzun gereği aldığım karar,” Photo,April 13, 2020, https://twitter.com/suleymansoylu/status/1249627175713734660.

24 Judy Dempsey, “Could the Coronavirus Revitalize (or Sink) the Liberal Script?,” Carnegie Europe, April 1, 2020,https://carnegieeurope.eu/2020/04/01/could-coronavirus-revitalize-or-sink-liberal-script-pub-81459.

25Alexander Cooley, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 3 (2015): 49-63,https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/authoritarianism-goes-global-countering-democratic-norms/.

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