COVID-19 and Turkish policy making

As more and more countries adopt stringent controls on the movement of people across their borders as well as effecting quarantine and mandatory social distancing policies, Turkey’s leaders must learn to accommodate themselves to being cut off from and cutting off others from regular face-to-face interactions. If handled well, Erdoğan’s response will be praised by supporters and opponents alike, if not, it will cause anger by the public.

Economic reassurance: Borrowing from the example of numerous other national leaders, President Erdoğan outlined a package of economic measures to soften the blow of a partial shutdown of economic activity in Turkey engendered by the restrictions on travel and social gatherings.  Ironically, this came soon after suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak, if survived, will present opportunities for Turkish companies as international manufacturers and investors shift away from China.  Like his American counterpart, his initial messaging is confusing and self-contradictory.

EU and Refugees: One clear result of the COVID-19 outbreak is the stiffening of EU spine against a repeat of 2015’s tsunami of migrants, which in turn revitalized the fortunes of xenophobic nationalist parties in Europe.  That Erdoğan and European leaders held a four-way video teleconference underlines the impact the virus outbreak is having on joint decision-making efforts.  The virus outbreak only serves to enhance the EU’s commitment to stop the migration of Syrian or other nations’ refugee now residing in Turkey into the EU space.  Any pleas from Erdoğan for relief from the closing of the EU’s borders will fall on deaf ears. 

Domestic politics:  At home, while the package of fiscal stimulus proposals will likely mitigate some or much of the economic consequences of the virus outbreak, political difficulties pose a greater challenge.  Pressure from the citizens to stop the movement of Syrians across the border into Turkey will increase.  Meanwhile from Syria, Assad and Putin will seek to protect the gains of the Syrian regime from the spread of covid-19 but not relent from their ultimate goal of returning all of Syria to Assad’s authority.  In keeping with his pattern to date, Assad is likely to seek a means to have the virus spread among his enemies, internal and external, while safeguarding the health of this own supporters and military personnel – a man who bombs school houses and hospitals cares little for the health and welfare of others.   Certainly Turkey can expect no help from the Assad regime in stopping possibly infected persons from reaching or crossing into Turkey. 

Erdoğan is a hands-on politician.  He likes to go out and meet people, to hold rallies, to walk among the crowds of supporters.  In this way, he is quite like his American counterpart.  Also like President Trump, his initial missteps appear to be giving way to a realization that the virus outbreak threatens not only the lives and health of people in Turkey, but calls for strong leadership that brings together the resources of the state in the service of the people, not just his party or supporters.  Unlike Trump, he does not have the luxury of a robust economy that is better able to weather the health crisis’ accompanying economic downturn better than most countries.  For all the worries in the U.S. and the dramatic fall in stock prices on the New York Stock Exchange, the strengths of the U.S. economy will allow the government to expend billions upon billions of dollars to cushion the financial impact of the virus outbreak.

Politically more importantly, the draconian domestic regulations in the U.S. are imposed at the local and state (provincial) level, one of the advantages of a federal system.  This allows Trump and his crisis management team to make proposals, encourage citizens to follow standards of hygiene and social distancing, and support those in need, but leaves to local politicians the burden of imposing draconian measures if the local populace is uncooperative in response to suggested behavior tailored to each local or regional community.  Most American know that a U. S. President’s domestic police authority is very limited – and they like it that way.  Also, the robust freedom of speech in the U.S. ensures that social media can continue to spread information that officials might wish to suppress, a useful check that induces officials to be transparent and forthcoming - not so in Turkey. 

As a unitary state in which all decisions flow from the top, any constraints on speech, movement, assembly, congregating are seen as actions by the President – unlike Trump’s situation, any resentment of restrictions imposed will be directed at the top of the political pyramid.  And though Erdoğan is likely to blame others for any failures in policy making or implementation, Turks understand their political system and know who to hold accountable for decisions affecting the nation. 

 If many Turks do not die, and we must all hope and pray that the number of deaths is mercifully few, Erdoğan will be lauded for having saved the Turkish people from a situation like Wuhan province in China or Lombardy in Italy.  All missteps and misstatements will be forgotten.  But like the adventure in Syria, if the body count rises, his strong hold on the reins of power might begin to slip.  In political terms, the opposition can hope voters remember his mistakes; in human terms, all Turks must hope his efforts bear good fruit. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.