Turkey’s Mainstream Opposition Is Squandering the Coronavirus Crisis

Led by the autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s government has responded to the coronavirus crisis as you would expect: with an iron fist. But the mainstream opposition isn’t proposing a democratic, egalitarian alternative. Workers will have to step in to fill the void.

People chant slogans as they gather outside Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia on July 10, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. Burak Kara / Getty

When Turkey registered its first official COVID-19 infection on March 11, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan struck a firmly upbeat tone: “No virus is as strong as our preparations.” Since then, his tenor has not changed much. In a complete distortion of facts, Erdoğan’s government has presented Turkey as more or less the world leader in fighting the coronavirus pandemic while the developed West is ailing — authoritarian hubris at its best.

Erdoğan, and the right-wing nationalist regime he leads — effectively comprised of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its fascistic ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — desperately need the appearance of grandeur, as the situation is rather dire: poor handling of COVID-19, falling approval ratings, a severe economic crisis, and an emboldened opposition. Aware of its precarious position, the ruling bloc has radicalized its methods of authoritarian consolidation, pursuing a coercive diplomacy by military means in its foreign policy, repressing dissidents domestically, passing laws to weaken civil society and opposition mayors, and spouting chauvinist and sexist propaganda.

COVID-19, in other words, has become a catalyst for intensifying social antagonisms in Turkey.

Hubris and Reality

In principle, Turkey acts according to the same maxims as other developed capitalist countries in the face of the coronavirus pandemic: the ruling bloc tries to balance short-term profit interests with the long-term interests of capitalist accumulation and social stability. If too many people die too fast, destabilization can set in; if too many restrictive measures are applied, profits fall rapidly. The goal is to settle on a strategy somewhere in between.

However, unlike more developed capitalist countries, crisis-ridden Turkey lacks the resources and the regime lacks the stability to control the pandemic according to those guidelines. Although some bigger malls, shops, and eating establishments were closed down, stricter social distancing measures were withdrawn pretty quickly. As the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) rightly points out, the state completely delegated responsibility to individual citizens while spreading an aura of carelessness with a supposed “return to normality” beginning on June 1. Although the interior ministry declared curfews for most of the bigger cities at the peak of the first wave, they only applied on weekends, when workers are usually off and loss of profits is manageable. Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın summed it up well when he said: “The economic costs of a general curfew would be high.”

The government’s ineffective approach only partially reflects itself in the numbers. According to official figures, Turkey has seen roughly 300,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 7,500 deaths. However, until recently, there had been scarcely any detailed data on regional breakdown, age, and previous illnesses, and no transparency in data production, all of which made it impossible to produce an adequate epidemiological analysis of the situation . In an open letter to the Lancet on August 15, medical scientists decried the data irregularities and prohibitive intervention of the Health Ministry into coronavirus-related research. (The health minister promptly denied it in a short op-ed in the same journal). The TTB and care-sector unions have been pointing out that real infection cases vastly outstrip official numbers, and many likely COVID-19 deaths aren’t reported as such in order to dress up the statistics. Many cities report that hospitals are at full capacity already.

In any case, even the official numbers show that Turkey entered “normalization” at a time when the first wave was not yet over, spurring what many experts have called a second wave or a “second peak of the first wave” long before the Health Ministry acknowledged this. With hospitals overrun and security measures deficient, medical practitioners at hospitals have been resigning.

As a result of the government’s indecisive measures, the effective reproduction number (Reff) of coronavirus in Istanbul briefly reached an incredible sixteen at the beginning of April, and the Turkey-wide Reff of nine at the end of March was much higher than the worldwide average. According to the TTB, Turkey lags behind many comparable countries, whether measured in deaths per 1,000 inhabitants or new infections.

As in most countries, COVID-19 has hit Turkey’s most vulnerable the hardest: many (often informal) workers in manufacturing, textile, services, construction, and other industries have had no other choice but to clock in even during peak times of the pandemic, often without any security measures, entrapped between the Scylla of infection and the Charybdis of hunger. Women, in particular, have been pummeled, losing jobs much more frequently and shouldering most of the extra care work.

Places of production — including at SuperFresh (foods) and Ülker (biscuits) in Bursa, Eti Gıda (biscuits) in Eskişehir, Gedik Piliç (poultry) in Uşak, and BMC (automobiles) in Izmir — have posted high infection rates. In one of the country’s largest factories, Dardanel (canned fish) in Çanakkale, managers used a “closed circuit work system” to continue production after a major infection event — keeping infected workers laboring and staying in barracks alongside other infected workers on the factory premises. Similarly, workers at a dam construction site in Yusufeli/Artvin, located in northeastern Turkey, have been effectively forced by the Ankara-appointed governor to stay on site and continue working despite an ongoing infection outbreak. In another large factory with thousands of workers, Vestel (appliances) in the western city of Manisa, employers not only ignored security regulations and covered up a major infection outbreak, they deliberately exposed workers to high infection risks. Other than BMC in Izmir, none of the country’s factories were ever closed down. Not surprisingly, in Istanbul — termed “the Wuhan of Turkey” by health minister Fahrettin Koca — the poorest neighborhoods were ravaged by the pandemic.

In order to grasp the real dimensions of the pandemic, one would need to examine excess mortality — a difficult task in Turkey due to insufficient data. The New York Times nonetheless estimates excess mortality in Istanbul to be around 20 percent between March and June as compared to 2017–19, and the Economist records an excess mortality of 50 percent at peak times (March–May), indicating excess deaths are twice as high as the official COVID-19 death toll. Still, since there are no exact numbers of deaths, much less of coronavirus-related deaths in Istanbul, these are only very rough estimates and not transferable to the whole country. Steve Hanke, an economist at the Johns Hopkins University, has placed Turkey among those countries whose coronavirus statistics are highly untrustworthy.

The Collapse

As everywhere else in the world, the COVID-19 crisis triggered a major economic downturn in Turkey, the reassurances of the government notwithstanding. The coronavirus-triggered economic crisis buffeted an already-ailing economy. While manufacturing dropped by 30 percent in April 2020 compared to April 2019, tourism and exports, the main elements of foreign exchange income for currency-hungry Turkey, also collapsed. The International Monetary Fund calculates a drop in GDP of around 5 percent for the entire year, but the real unemployment rate is already at 25 percent. Surveys show that around half of the population is suffering from income loss, distress, and fear of an uncertain future due to the pandemic.

Erdoğan’s government has very limited resources to combat this new economic crisis. Due to its structural weaknesses (dependency on foreign capital inflows, foreign exchange, and capital imports), Turkey’s neoliberal economy was already weak when the United State Federal Reserve announced in 2013 that it would reverse its post-crisis quantitative easing program, which pumped trillions of dollars into the economy. The government’s partial abandonment of what could be called “neoliberal constitutionalism” — which favors ostensibly non-political technocratic institutions and policies — coupled with Erdoğan’s forceful policy-making in general, only aggravated the situation, leading to downturns and systemic instability in Turkey’s economy. As this turned into a severe currency shock in August 2018, the import and foreign debt bill especially of the private sector exploded, triggering loan repayment problems, a surge in inflation, and a slump in consumption.

When the current coronavirus-induced crisis took shape, the regime initially responded with three measures to save companies: First, a stimulus package, mostly containing tax breaks and state assistance for incidental wage costs. The package contained next to nothing for workers themselves. Second, the government intervened massively in financial markets and foreign trade, mostly via the central bank (TCMB) and other public banks to halt a currency decline and capital flight (already roughly $11 billion in the first six months of 2020). Third, another credit infusion via public banks and the TCMB for battered companies at negative interest rates.

Amid all this, another heavy currency shock hit in August. As overnight interest rates for currency swaps in the London market reached an unbelievable 1,050 percent on the night of August 4, the Turkish lira (TL) began losing ground fast. Soon the TCMB’s net reserves other than swaps turned negative, and the TCMB was forced into swap deals with Qatar, China, and Turkey’s private banks to stem the tide — to no avail, as the crumbling reserves of the TCMB further aggravated the situation.

Within weeks, the TL crumbled against the dollar and euro, as it did in 2018. Since Erdoğan opposes raising official interest rates — not because he is obtuse, but because he fears a collapse of domestic small- and medium-size businesses, his popular backbone — the TCMB had no other option than to go for a total reversal of its crisis management: the massive credit expansion was quickly revoked, and the TCMB began introducing interest rate hikes via backdoor measures. With the lira still limping along, experts see an increase in official interest rates on the horizon.

Most of these crisis measures — as with most of the economic management in Turkey since at least 2013 — contradict strict neoliberal dogmas. Still, it might be too early to talk of “post-neoliberalism” as an accumulation regime in itself, as the Marxist Ümit Akçay seems to do, or of a “new neoliberalism,” as the Marxist Pınar Bedirhanoğlu does. The uneasy, sometimes contradictory relationship of authoritarian populist leaders in power and neoliberalism on a global comparative scale has been noted by critical scholars. The same can be said of Turkey, where big capital is complaining of Erdoğan’s arbitrary regime while at the same time profiting the most from it.

Capital views the crisis as a huge opportunity: the lobbying groups of big capital, whether Islamic-conservative or secular-liberal in orientation, insist it is time for Turkey to replace China in the global value chain. The methods big capital proposes to achieve this are dystopic: they speak of large, sealed-off manufacturing cities with workers under a panopticon of electronic surveillance, all under the pretext of combatting the pandemic. Warnings of a potential “Covid-1984” are spot-on.

The state has offered workers next to nothing since the start of the pandemic. Short-term allowance for formal employees (covering around 6 million workers and unemployed people) is around $5 per day. Payments by state unemployment funds to companies in 2019 and 2020 were higher than those paid out to workers and the unemployed in the pandemic. Even official numbers by the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services indicate that all central state-organized assistance to workers, unemployed, and families — roughly 21 million people — amounted to less than a third of the employer-friendly package in March.

Instead of actually supporting people in acute distress, the state has delegated its responsibility: both Erdoğan and municipalities controlled by the centrist opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), started their own fundraising campaigns. The official state campaign led by Erdoğan managed to gather around $280 million by the end of June.

At its peak, one-seventh of Istanbul households, mostly from the poorest neighborhoods, applied for municipal assistance; in Ankara, goods worth over TL 30 million (around $4 million) were distributed to the needy. According to their own numbers, CHP-led municipalities were helping over 4 million families with aid by May alone. This continued well into the Feast of the Sacrifice (kurban bayramı) in early August.

Attempting Authoritarian Consolidation

The coronavirus pandemic initiated Act Two of the struggle for the metropolitan cities. After Erdogan’s party, the AKP, lost many of the largest cities in the 2019 municipal elections, including Istanbul and Ankara, it tried to limit the CHP’s ability to implement their preferred policies through financial strangulation and placing checks on the party via municipal parliaments still dominated by AKP and the right-wing, hypernationalist MHP.

These machinations have extended to the pandemic. After CHP mayors announced their own fundraising campaign, the Interior Ministry swiftly barred municipalities from accepting monetary donations. According to Erdoğan, the CHP’s efforts were an attempt to construct a parallel state and, as such, an act of terrorism. Municipalities responded by switching to aid in kind and mediation of donations in kind.

So far, Erdogan’s efforts have been for naught: the approval ratings of opposition mayors and their party are skyrocketing, while the AKP and its ally, the MHP, are losing some ground. Still, the revenue of municipalities is falling, with the central government blocking or slashing financing and borrowing for CHP-led municipalities. Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu (CHP), has already announced an austerity program that will cut around 35 percent from all departments. It is unclear how long the oppositional mayors can hold on.

In addition to the anti-CHP machinations, repression against the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has continued unabated. By now, most of the HDP’s mayors have been ousted due to “terrorism” suspicions, three MPs (two from the HDP, one from the CHP) were briefly taken into custody, and unfavored judges have been transferred for disciplinary reasons or dismissed by the regime.

This kind of repression and authoritarianism serves another purpose: it galvanizes and emboldens right-wing elements in society. Over the summer, three Armenian churches were attacked within a month, the Hrant Dink Foundation (named for the slain editor of an Armenian-Turkish magazine) received death threats, and police violence and anti-Kurdish assaults grew. One AKP devotee publicly raved on TV that her family could kill a dozen dissidents.

It is no wonder that little despots shoot up like mushrooms in a country where the president is constantly railing against the Armenian, Greek, and other supposed foreign lobbies and internal “traitors”; the Interior Ministry is defending police torture; and the state is employing extremely polarizing chauvinist rhetoric against dissidents and minorities while cutting protections for women.

Feminists have been sounding the alarm bell about a rise in femicide and domestic violence, with the president of the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey telling Al-Monitor in April that her group fielded 80 percent more reports of domestic assaults in March than the same month last year. The government has responded by bashing from the Istanbul Convention, an accord intended to protect women and others from domestic violence.

When the country’s highest religious dignitary declared that homosexuals were spreading diseases and contributing to degeneration, Erdoğan stood behind him and warned of a threat to “national values.” The chief of the Red Cross in Turkey and the presidential spokesman railed against LGBT people in a similar vein, echoing the AKP’s main arguments against the Istanbul Convention. While homophobic and patriarchal rhetoric have always been a favored weapon of the AKP, they’ve stepped it up in the wake of the pandemic, sparking gender-based violence on the streets: the LGBT organization SPoD reported a doubling of requests for help due to gender-based discrimination and violence in the forty-five days after the dignitary’s homophobic statements.

The institutional leg of the government’s attempts at authoritarian consolidation have also been expanded. The government has granted a new twenty-thousand-strong law enforcement agency, parallel to the police and dubbed the “night guard” (bekçi), the right to use weapons. Another relatively autonomous law enforcement agency within the police department named the Auxiliary Task Force Police Unit (Takviye Hazır Kuvvet Polis Birimi) has been expanded as well. The government has adopted a law curtailing the power of the oppositional Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara bar associations and strengthening the pro-regime Anatolian bar associations. A similar approach to the remaining autonomous associations, including the Medical Association or the Technical Chamber, has been announced. Parliamentary power is more or less defunct, as Erdoğan passes dozens of laws and literally thousands of legislative amendments in the form of presidential decrees, mostly without any parliamentary involvement, not even from his own party.

And finally, the country’s military footprint is growing. After a couple invasions into mostly Kurdish-controlled parts of northern and northwestern Syria (better known as Rojava), Turkey deployed a brief military escalation against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, right before the onset of the pandemic. Turkey further intervened militarily into Libya on behalf of the ruling government.

Finally, Turkey pushed into Iraq, launching multiple commando operations in an attempt to disrupt the logistical structures of the PKK, the militant Kurdish group. While the Libyan intervention aims to secure a Turkish foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean and access to its energy resources via coercive and military diplomacy, the interventions in Syria and Iraq aim at destroying Kurdish autonomy and carving out a stake in the post-war landscape.

In addition to potentially buttressing Erdogan’s government at home by stoking chauvinist sentiment, this militaristic posture is in line with the interests of Turkish capital (especially in terms of energy) and is firmly situated within the post–Cold War strategic outlooks in the mind of different elites, which envision Turkey as a regional imperialist power.

On the other hand, it brings risks for the regime. Not only do the merits of coercive diplomacy quickly diminish when Turkey attempts to convert military might into diplomatic gains, but the country now also has to deal with strong and established interests such as Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates that it antagonizes with its coercive approach. Finally, by waging permanent war against the Kurds, the government risks dispensing itself of a less coercive solution to the “Kurdish Question,” based on dialogue and consensus.

Wolves Among Wolves

Although Erdoğan is the ultimate power within the state, in Turkey as in other authoritarian states, no person reigns alone — and power groups are jostling with one another, invoking Erdoğan as ultimate judge and arbiter.

Below Erdoğan, a number of wolves have emerged. Take the interior minister, Süleyman Soylu. After his disastrous management of the country’s first pandemic-related curfew in Turkey — Soylu announced the restriction just two hours before it was to take effect, triggering mass panic and millions storming the malls — Soylu said he would resign. Erdoğan rejected the offer, a move widely read as a successful tactical maneuver by the nationalist faction around Soylu against the faction’s intra-party opponents. Soylu, the most prominent politician with the AKP’s base, is viewed as the best-suited candidate to succeed Erdoğan should he leave the chairmanship of the AKP. In the foreign policy arena, the militaristic course has strengthened the hand of ex–chief of staff and current defense minister Hulusi Akar, who has been able to repeatedly transfer or even obtain the resignations of disfavored generals.

Meanwhile, the AKP’s main political ally, the MHP, has been able to set the tone of governmental policy. The premature release from prison of the fascist hit man and mafia boss Alaattin Çakıcı, a fierce MHP devotee who was convicted to a sixteen-year prison sentence for murder, can be read as a major success of the MHP. Up to now, Erdoğan was rejecting such demands from the party because he feared the MHP might grow too strong.

In the high judiciary, an intense competition has broken out between different Islamist groups collectively called Righteous Way (Hakyol) close to the justice minister Abdulhamit Gül; the so-called Istanbul Group close to finance minister Berat Albayrak; and the remnants of a nationalist-Alevi-leftish coalition under the umbrella of the Judiciary Unity Platform (Yargıda Birlik Platformu) that were brought in after 2014 to combat the influence of followers of Fetullah Gülen, the now-exiled cleric.

More moderate figures within the regime, such as the mayor of Gaziantep, Fatma Şahin (AKP), who repeatedly rejected calling all members of the opposition “terrorists,” have become a rarity. Most of them have found refuge within two parties that split from the AKP: the ex–finance minister Ali Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the ex–prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party (GP). While Davutoğlu represents the more Islamic-conservative wing of ex-AKP supporters, Babacan represents the liberal-conservative wing. For both, the early days of the AKP (up to 2013) were a success story that should be repeated.

None of these parties call into question the neoliberalism that AKP installed and that is now in deep crisis. Still, their formation constitutes a threat to the survival of the regime, and rumors have long circulated of snap elections and a draft law biased against smaller and new parties, impeding MPs from deserting the regime parties.

The Other Turkey

But there is also a different Turkey, one that does not walk among the wolves and, at times, even resists the game. Workers have gone on strike in Darıca/Kocaeli, Diyarbakır, Istanbul, and Izmir over infection events and lack of security measures. In Izmir, care workers have demonstrated against wage cuts and for overdue payments, and in Istanbul, construction workers successfully demonstrated for payment of overdue wages. Workers in larger factories in Izmir and Istanbul are fighting a new proposal that aims to destroy workers’ severance pay rights, while struggles against well-known union-busting methods such as summary dismissals for union activity have continued unabated.

In the political arena, the protest marches of the bar associations and the HDP stand out. Despite massive police repression, the HDP held a pro-democracy march earlier this summer against the removal of its mayors and the detention of its MPs, while the oppositional bar associations marched to defend themselves against the new law curtailing their power.

While most of the dissent in Turkish society is not so visible, it reveals itself in anonymous surveys. Polls find that young people who were eligible to vote for the first time in 2018 — and who will make up 20 percent of the electorate in the 2023 contest — overwhelmingly voted against the regime parties (over 75 percent) and support values such as democracy and justice. A majority of young people reject nationalism and conservatism and oppose the existing parties. While the same pro-democratic tendencies prevail in much of the population (if in somewhat weaker form), approval of feminist politics is rising, and the opposition between religiosity and leftist politics is diminishing. A majority of the population says they don’t support abolishing the Istanbul Convention, including AKP voters. And the economic situation is viewed as the most dire problem, while “terrorism” and similar topics are seen as less important. The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque — clearly motivated by nationalist impulses — has not changed voting behavior, as a majority thinks the controversial move served to distract from economic woes.

Of course, aggressive nationalism does exist in wide layers of the population. But this is exactly what the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci would call the contradictory nature of everyday consciousness, in which progressive and social elements are intermingled with reactionary ones as long as there is no organized class consciousness or social relations in which the people are empowered.

Despite this abundant potential for a different Turkey, most of the opposition parties have failed to struggle for a genuine alternative. The CHP has not supported the HDP in its struggle against massive repression, other than paying mere lip service. The head of the CHP rejected calling people onto the streets, saying he believed this would give the AKP a pretext to reintroduce a state of emergency — as if a state abiding by the wishes and decrees of its president with a strongly pro-regime juridical system, which favors measures akin to a police state, is not itself already a state of emergency. As if such a system could be changed without also organizing power on the streets.

Meral Akşener, leader of the Good Party (IYI), which split from the MHP, is much more direct in these matters: she regularly identifies the HDP with the PKK and with “terrorism,” and even called on Erdoğan to establish “national unity” in order to combat the pandemic. In her own words, government and opposition are united already in foreign policy matters — that is, united in chauvinistic militarism. Tellingly, it took days for her to rebuff a recent joint offer by Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli to desert the opposition camp and join the regime.

The “Kurdish Question,” meanwhile, has become a symbol for all the problems of democracy in today’s Turkey. State and capital in Turkey fear that uncontrolled participation, such as in the 2013 Gezi Uprising, will lead to demands for a fundamentally different Turkey — that is, a democratic and social republic — in which there is no place for today’s strongmen or today’s patriotic opposition. That is perhaps the main reason they are unable and unwilling to radically challenge Erdoğan, who reinforces his relative autonomy day by day and pushes Turkey into a deadlock of economic crisis and instability.

In more common narratives of the opposition’s recent victories against the regime, the opposition is painted as anti-“populist,” cohering around a democratic perspective against authoritarianism. What is usually omitted is how irresolute or even supportive the opposition was of the regime’s politics for years, especially its militarism and chauvinism. There is a thin but clearly demarcated line between being open toward regime voters and appeasement that buttresses authoritarianism. The latter not only strengthens the regime and keeps it in place, it also hampers the possibility of a genuinely democratic and social future for Turkey, with the dispersion and normalization of authoritarian attitudes rendering such a venture ever more difficult.

Given all of this, the dominant struggle in Turkey today is not between authoritarianism and democracy but between authoritarian consolidation in crisis and neoliberal restoration. Parts of the liberal and even republican and Marxist intelligentsia are again about to fall unintentionally into the trap of supporting neoliberal restoration against authoritarianism, as they did in the early days of the AKP era.

But there is a viable alternative to these dominant trends and the eternal recurrence of the same. If a left opposition further strengthens itself in the political arena, and the people of the “other” Turkey take their destiny into their own hands, they will have the opportunity not only to break Erdoğan’s power but also to defy the dystopic plans of capital and shift the political system altogether — toward a social and democratic republic.

This piece is a translated and adapted version of an essay to be published next month in Die Welt nach Corona: Von den Risiken des Kapitalismus, den Nebenwirkungen des Ausnahmezustands und der kommenden Gesellschaft, edited by Dieter F. Bertz.

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Alp Kayserilioğlu is an editor at re-volt magazine and is working on his PhD on political economy, hegemony, and popular dynamics in the AKP era in Turkey. He currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

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