ISTANBUL—Less than two hours before midnight on Friday, April 10, hundreds of thousands of people flooded streets across Turkey. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish government had announced a last-minute weekend curfew for 31 provinces, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The decision was intended to keep people at home on their days off, but the late announcement made it a dangerous call.
The weekend lockdown would last just 48 hours, but the public’s lack of trust in the government led many to believe it would be extended without notice. More people took to the streets nationwide than in the past month, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had asked citizens to implement a “voluntary quarantine.” Fights broke out, people cleared the shelves of the small markets that were still open, and few took social distancing precautions.
To add to the mayhem, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu—a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)—was not notified in advance that the city would be put under lockdown. As a result, there was not enough time for the municipality to reassure residents they would not be left without food or support, or to organize public transport for essential health care workers. Imamoglu decried the sudden curfew on Twitter, saying that such a unilateral decision “only creates confusion and panic.”
The lockdown panic prompted the attempted resignation of Turkey’s interior minister—rejected by Erdogan—on Sunday night as the lockdown was ending. The president’s office released a statement denying any “problem in public safety.” But the national government announced a second curfew, set for this weekend, well in advance.
Since the beginning of Turkey’s coronavirus outbreak, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has refused to work with municipalities run by the opposition CHP. The lockdown was the latest in a series of recent events in which Turkey’s government has played politics at the expense of its citizens and chosen decisions in its own interest over clear communication.
Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has 74,193 confirmed coronavirus cases as of April 17. Imamoglu has called for a citywide lockdown for weeks, claiming to have sent various unanswered messages to Erdogan signaling that they should work together to prevent a crisis. This lack of coordination, echoed by the CHP-run capital, Ankara, limits the capacity of local governments to address the coronavirus.
Erdogan sees Imamoglu, who defeated the AKP twice in Istanbul’s March 2019 mayoral election and a repeat race last June, as a major electoral threat. Imamoglu is a potential rival to Erdogan in Turkey’s 2023 presidential elections: Anyone who runs Istanbul well can gain a foothold in national politics. (Erdogan himself was the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998.) Turkish politics have long been polarized between the secular population that tends to support the CHP and religious conservatives who vote for the AKP. In Turkey’s local elections in 2019, the AKP lost power in Turkey’s three biggest cities—but only by a small margin. Despite the significant threat of the coronavirus, the prospect of being voted out of office has shaped Erdogan’s pandemic decision-making.
The AKP is therefore seeking to limit the ability of CHP mayors to maintain local services and distribute social assistance to those in need, particularly people who have lost jobs due to the coronavirus. “Politicians play politics, and these are populist politicians who have a zero-sum game notion of politics. So for them, they either win or they lose. They leave little room for compromise,” said Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara. “[Erdogan] fears Imamoglu running against him, so he doesn’t want to give him any space or any autonomy in managing this crisis.”
On March 31, the national government canceled fundraisers to help families affected by the pandemic organized by Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas. Erdogan said the CHP mayors were trying to create a “state within the state,” prompting Imamoglu to file a legal complaint. Seeking the spotlight, the president instead launched its own national fundraising drive. On April 10, the Ministry of Interior launched an investigation into the donation campaigns run by Imamoglu and Yavas. Imamoglu has called blocking the donations a “very weak and very poor” move by the national government.
The AKP is seeking to restrict the opposition even in smaller provinces. In the CHP-run Antalya municipality, on the Mediterranean coast, the interior ministry also shut down a soup kitchen serving 2,000 people—including many who had lost work due to the coronavirus. The kitchen was run on donations from the public rather than by the state, which the ministry once again used as justification to shut it down.
The conflict between opposition-run municipalities and the national government amid the coronavirus pandemic follows a pattern since the AKP’s 2019 local elections losses. For a year, the national government has sought to take away revenue and limited budgets for the CHP-run municipalities.
More than 2 million people have lost their jobs in Turkey due to coronavirus measures, according to CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. And the unemployment rate is likely to rise, meaning Erdogan’s tactics could backfire. If people can’t access a soup kitchen or donations made to support their needs in a time of crisis because the national government has shut it down, it’s likely to lead to public resentment—and could have an effect at the polls.
But this is a risk Erdogan is willing to take to prevent Imamoglu and other CHP leaders from being seen as Turkey’s heroes after the pandemic. “If Imamoglu comes out of this crisis unscathed, with a bit of a popularity build-up, he’s going to be quite formidable down the line,” Esen said. On the other hand, if Erdogan can keep the support of AKP voters rather than losing it due to the social benefits provided by the CHP, he may still be able to win the next election.
If Erdogan continues to block social assistance being delivered at the local level, communities will need to step up their organization.
In Ankara, Yavas has already begun to push his constituents in that direction. In neighborhood shops across Turkey, it is common for people who need food but can’t pay immediately to write their debt in a book—to be paid once they receive their salary. Yavas has suggested that anyone in the community who has money to spare go to the local greengrocer and pay off others’ debts.
The coronavirus pandemic presents a rupture in Turkish politics. The crisis could either strengthen the local-national divide between CHP and AKP or push the Turkish public as a whole to support the opposition, who are presenting themselves as the true representatives of the poor in a time of dire need.