Turkey and COVID-19: Success, turmoil, insecurity and opportunity

Turkey and COVID-19, Erdoğan
© Vasilis Ververidis

Dr Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, expert on Turkish politics, discusses the ongoing realities of Turkey and COVID-19

There appears to be almost no country in which COVID-19 has not inflicted considerable trauma. And it has been primarily the more prominent nations that have been impacted by this pandemic, against which, despite its emergence having been expected, precautions were not arranged, and which has plunged the world into a state of turmoil.

The successes and failures of States

Notwithstanding this impact, it appears that some nations will, with few repercussions, successfully overcome this gruelling process, while others yet continue to falter as they wade through the crisis. For instance, Germany, with its transparent understanding of governance, swift and structured administering of tests and minimised death rate, could be considered a ‘successful’ case. In contrast, there are some, unsuccessful examples, such as the United States of America and United Kingdom, that awoke to the situation relatively late and were unable to keep their death rates to a steady downward trend.

Alongside these two groups are the Asian examples — countries such as Singapore and South Korea, which appear, relative to western nations, to have handled the crisis more competently — and South-east European countries — where governments promptly and repressively shut down in order to gain relative control over the disease. Some nations, among this diversity of examples, illustrate a comparably colourful and multifaceted scene, but we can categorise these as neither directly successful nor directly unsuccessful. Turkey stands atop the nations that have fallen into the gap separating this dichotomy.

Insight: Turkey and COVID-19

Although, as of early May, Turkey ranked seventh in the world in the number of cases and had conducted relatively fewer tests, some positive regressions have emerged in its global rankings for the number killed by the disease. Prominent in this apparently ‘successful’ situation was the role of Turkey’s structurally potent healthcare system, whose history dates back to Ottoman modernisation. Nonetheless, its young population and the cultural preservation of its elderly population — the at-risk group — carried added value for Turkey in this calculation of success through motivations of communal solidarity. But as Evren Balta and Soli Özel mentioned in their most recent research article, the numerical values Turkey has provided are a matter of debate, both domestically and internationally. The underlying reason for this debate is that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, by gradually incapacitating Turkey’s institutions, been constructing a chaotic, one-man regime of disputed transparency and credibility since the early 2010s. The question of whether institutions categorically loyal to an authoritarian and populist leader would share the real figures of the COVID-19 crisis represents a separate, yet substantial, topic of discussion. Turkey’s position, to be succinct, is sowing doubt in this success.

However, Turkey did act favourably by working to diminish the death rate by legally prohibiting those aged 65 and older from leaving their homes. But, as in England, Germany and France, it was unable to fully ensure that everyone — apart from some working in certain professions — stayed at home. This pertains to the state of Turkey’s economy, something we can no longer describe as merely ‘fragile’. The Central Bank has nearly depleted its reserves, yet Turkey has failed to seize control of its imploding currency. This is why gratuitous assistance has been impossible, even as businesses such as restaurants and gyms remain closed.

It is once again understood during this COVID-19 crisis, while the economic wheels of the country turn, as Erdoğan has always stressed, that the turning wheels of the economy have burst, and the outlook is bleak. If, in addition to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we add the contracting global economy, we could suggest that a bright future is not awaiting Turkey but also that, in reality, it is an economically unsound nation, domestically, regionally and globally.

The ‘soft power’ became a more authoritarian presence

Despite this insecurity, Turkey is, interestingly, trying to manoeuvre into functioning as a key global actor for the post-COVID-19 era, but these actions contain a slew of variety. As Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has noted, Turkey, while facing its own challenges with medical supplies, is providing medical assistance to more than 70 countries — western countries including England and Italy, the Balkans, African nations, and Turkic republics.

Although Turkey has yet to fully solve the task of how to distribute masks to its own citizens, this assistance can be interpreted in three ways. First, Turkey had damaged its previously cultivated image as a benevolent soft power, with its growing authoritarian tendencies after 2013 and its use of Islam as a tool of foreign policy, it aims to gain back this influence in different regions. Second, in its pursuit to become a regionally and globally dominant actor, Turkey is delivering this aid as a result of the passive war it fights with other foreign actors in regions where it seeks to spread influence. For instance, it is racing with China and Russia to distribute aid to the Balkans, and with Saudi Arabia over Muslim nations in Africa.

And third, Erdoğan’s regime, as well as his domestic and diaspora supporters, is presenting this assistance as elements of propaganda. Erdoğan is, on the one hand, a cogent actor but, on the other hand, is in a difficult position where he grows weaker as he becomes more authoritarian and needs even the most insignificant vote. For this reason, he is trying to consolidate his supporters by portraying himself and the country he governs as robust. He is concurrently seeking to prevent his former colleagues and political allies who are breaking away from his party to form their own from stealing his votes.

Post-COVID politics?

As a result, Turkey’s battle with the coronavirus — the policies it implemented during the crisis — clarify for us a myriad of multifaceted elements both for Turkey and for the Balkans and the Middle East as well as for Europe, the epicentre. Though impossible to determine with any precision a point for the future, three points are certain for Turkey and the region: First, we will see a Turkey that seeks to be more globally influential after COVID-19 subsides but that, in one way or another, fails to attain its desired degree of influence due to the profound economic crisis within which it finds itself.

Among the domestic political ramifications of this economic crisis, Erdoğan, in order to ensure his electoral victory, will seek to once again game the system and grow even more authoritarian, employing religion and nationalism to further suppress the opposition. But, for the time being, whether this emerges as a success for himself or an opportunity for the opposition appears dependent on the COVID-19 programme he enacts.

 

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