The story of how the greatest crisis in 21st century affected politics and economy in Turkey.
Republic of Turkey is one of the latest European countries in having its first case of COVID-19. While European Union and neighbors of Turkey were struggling with the biggest health crisis of this century, Turkish Ministry of Health announced the first case reveal on 11 March. The first death due to epidemic occurred on 15 March. However, even though coronavirus arrived to the country late, it spread fast especially in big cities and the daily positive test results reached its peak (5,138) in mid April with 82,329 case numbers in total which were the highest in the Middle East, overtaking Iran.
Turkey joins the top 10 (for all the wrong reasons)
Rising up to top 10 list of the highest cases in the world, Turkey introduced more restrictions such as air traffic bans, curfew for weekends, staying home obligation for people above 65 and under 20 years old every day, online education, temporary entrance ban to the 30 metropolitan cities, closing restaurants, cafes, bars as well as cinema and theatre venues alongside postponement and cancellation of sport events. President Erdoğan announced that two new hospitals (one is former Ataturk Airport) were being built in Istanbul for epidemic, making a call for all country to be one body against COVID-19. Whereas Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca was praised by media and public largely in the beginning of the epidemic because of posting daily information regularly and emphasizing the effort of medical workers in this battle, opposition parties lead by CHP were dissatisfied with the late restrictions and chaotic free mask distribution, demanding a total and well-planned curfew and economic care for citizens in a long.
11 metropolitan municipalities under opposition’s control including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir created their own solidarity platforms to support families who suffer from low income. However, those supports were blocked by a sudden directive from Ministry of Interior, declaring that municipalities are not allowed to collect donation. President Erdoğan criticized the 11 mayors, launching a nation-wide support campaign called “Biz Bize Yeteriz Türkiyem” (We're Enough for Each Other Turkey) for the spendings of the government in the fight against epidemic.
On 4 May, Turkish government stated that daily case numbers started to decrease and also revealed 1.9 billion Turkish Lira were collected with the campaign. Further, President Erdoğan pointed out how well Turkey faced the challenge of epidemic at a time when even the most developed countries struggled to provide control over Covid-19. Easing measurements gradually was presented, starting with “new normalization” restrictions such as people over 65 and between 15-20 years old were allowed to go out once a week, shopping malls and other social areas would be open with reduced working times.
However none of them made a big echo like new dates of LGS-High School Entrance Exam (June 20) and YKS-Higher Education Institutions Exam (June 27-28) did. Families raised their voice, emphasizing their worries for children who would take those exams under difficult and unsafe circumstances of epidemic on those established dates. The discontent of students due to new dates towards the government reached the top in Erdoğan’s Youtube live video conference two days earlier before YKS. Many students protested the decision, writing “No Vote” in the comment section of the video which lead the section to be banned immediately. The live conference has around 420.000 dislikes now and it is believed that it is a clear proof of the general negative response of Generation Z towards Erdoğan.
In beginning of the June, with the fact that daily positive test results went under 1000 and death numbers were around 20, domestic flights restarted and most public places including restaurants, cafes, parks, beaches and museums were decided to be open. Turkish Football League matches also resumed. In spite of this normalization process, Minister of Health Koca continued to make call for people to keep staying at home as much as possible. However, tourism sector in Turkey welcomed domestic and foreigner tourists to provide resource to economy which made the case numbers unstable during the summer period. At the time of writing this article (September 1), the country has 18,837 active patients. 961 of them are in critical condition. The number of total deaths is 6,370. In the last 24 hours, 1.587 new positive cases were recorded according to Ministry of Health’s daily Coronavirus table.
Eid Holiday leads to rise in infections
Lack of restrictions in Eid (Feast of the Sacrifice) holiday last month is also one of the reasons in this increase of COVID-19 statistics. Minister Koca stated that restrictions for holiday were not in their agenda but after Eid, he pointed out the sharp growth in daily cases were worrying. On the other hand, there has been some allegations from Turkish Medical Association about numbers not being reliable in Turkey. According the statement from the Association on 8 April, there are uncertainties in death reports in hospitals and on the graphics of Ministry.
Some death cases were not recorded as COVID-19 but as other reasons such as viral pneumonia, natural death or infectious disease. “Ministry knows the real numbers but does not share” says Marmara University Faculty of Medicine Prof. Filiz Onat on a TV programme. It is also claimed that the Ministry did not use WHO’s recommended codes for death reports but Minister Koca denied those allegations. New York Times Turkey Bureau Chief Carlotta Gall wrote in her article on 20 April “The presidential palace rolled out a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign, ensuring reports from hospitals, grave sites and mourning relatives remained virtually absent.”, emphasizing the higher death numbers in Istanbul between 9 March - 12 April based on the data compiled by the newspaper.
BBC News put President Erdoğan in the list of European leaders taking advantage of the epidemic and increasing authority alongside President of Russia Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban. In the article by Orla Guerin, it was claimed that Erdoğan demands more control on social media and hundreds have been arrested for provocative posts about COVID-19.
The swift decline of the Lira
Other problems Turkey has been facing under coronavirus effects is economy and devaluation. The tourism sector has always been a vital spot for Turkish economy, hosting millions of tourists every year. However, travel restrictions from many countries including EU due to unstable epidemic case numbers in the country left the economy devoid of this income. Although there have not been a total lockdown unlike Italy and Spain, other business sectors also suffered from restrictions. It is known that Turkish Lira has been losing in front of foreign currency during last decade but the loss recently occurred sharply whilst dollar reached 7,35 Lira and Euro jumped to 8,72 Lira, breaking a new record which made a big impact on public’s reaction.
Economy in the country has an important role in voting behaviours of public. This showed itself especially in 2001 crisis affecting to 2002 parliamentary elections in which Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The government is aware of this pretty much, making strong propaganda in media channels to show the economy in good hands and pointing out the external effects for devaluation. Also 34% of population is receiving social help monthly which strongly influences to votes.
According to Presidency's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, global colonial barons’ dirty games are the responsible of value loss in the Turkish currency. Also the Minister of Finance and Treasury Berat Albayrak who is son-in-law of Erdoğan, responded the worries of people on a TV programme, saying “Do you earn your salary in dollars? Do you owe money in dollars? Do you have anything to do with dollars?” which created a big reaction in opposition side. He also emphasized that currencies may rise and decrease but Turkish economy is more competitive than any time and it is less affected from global effects. President Erdoğan made a statement on 7 August, calling Turkish economy is on the rise but there are those who don’t want to see it.
According to MetroPOLL’s recent survey (July 2020) for a potential early election, Erdoğan’s party AKP has 33.2% of the votes. Its ally party MHP (Nationalist Movement Party)’s percentage is 6.%. Given the fact that their alliance had 53% of the votes in the last parliamentary election in 2018, it can be said there is a decrease in their current total votes. That is why, in July, sudden Hagia Sophia decision turning the museum into a mosque after 80 years can be helpful for Erdoğan to take more conservative votes. President Erdoğan also stated that the natural gas energy source they discovered recently in Black Sea would open the doors of Turkish economy to a new period and the country would start to have benefits from it starting from 2023 which is the 100th anniversary of foundation of the republic even though opposition claims that this is another propaganda for possible early elections, pointing out some energy sources were already found in Black Sea in the past but it did not help economy as it was expected.
To sum up, the next parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey are scheduled for 2023. But, it is expected that the fragile economy and intense politics of Turkey will be affected even more by COVID-19, so there are strong possibilities for early elections next year.
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.