Analysis |

In Coronavirus Crisis, Erdogan Faces an Opponent He Can’t Silence

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan participates in a teleconference with his ministers amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, March 23, 2020.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan participates in a teleconference with his ministers amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, March 23, 2020.Credit: ,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"We were the first to identify the expected outbreak of the pandemic. We took early measures and now we can reap the fruits," said this week Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. But the truth is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long belittled the threat the coronavirus posed to Turkey, vowing to keep the country free of COVID-19.

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As infection rates spiked across the world and Turkey seemed to be lagging behind, ridiculous theories circulated on social media claiming the Turks were immune "because of their DNA structure."

Turkey now faces a major acceleration of the outbreak, with nearly 40,000 cases, and has very little ammunition left. Measures such as turning private hospitals to coronavirus treatment facilities, housing medical teams in military camps, banning gatherings and imposing partial closures in many provinces, have failed to be effective. Turkey is currently ninth globally in rate of infections, a huge leap since the country’s first official case was announced on March 11.

Just like any other country badly hit by the coronavirus, Turkey is now forced to mitigate two worrying threats: an exponential growth in the number of cases and an economic crisis putting entire sectors at risk. Tourism, for example, made up about five percent of Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP), but has almost entirely shut down. Some 1.2 million workers in the tourism sector are at risk of losing their job.

Not only hotels, restaurants and the entertainment industry have been hit by the pandemic, but also big food companies, who rely on their income from supplying products to hotels and could go bankrupt. Two-thirds of Turkey’s tourism revenues are normally generated between March and September, but the sector’s activity is unlikely to resume until July, and that’s according to an optimistic estimate. This has far-reaching ramifications on the Turkish economy and the state’s budget, which already has to support 4.5 million unemployed citizens.

A worker in a protective suit sprays disinfectant at Grand Bazaar, known as the Covered Bazaar, to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 25, 2020. Credit: Umit Bektas/ REUTERS

About three weeks ago the government adopted a $14.5-billion aid program, including a delay value-added tax and national insurance fee collection, an increase in minimum pension payment to $249, loans under improved conditions and suspension of debt payments. But workers and business owners who lost at least a part of their income would not get any assistance beyond what the law stipulates, even though their needs are growing and prices are only going up.

Turkey has $18 billion in debts it is required to pay back within the next three months, while it also has to fund its war in Syria and cover costs related to hosting nearly four million Syrian refugees. On the bright side, there was no major coronavirus outbreak in its refugee camps or among the millions of refugees living in Turkey, many without any government supervision.

But if the virus spreads among refugees, Turkey will likely be unable to contain the outbreak on its own. It would need international medical and financial aid at time when international funds are rather resistant to provide money. A source of funding that could have helped Turkey now would be its foreign currency reserves, but it has nearly none left. In February it held only about $1.5 billion in reserve, after spending many billions to stimulate the failing Turkish lira.

Erdogan, an economic magician who rescued Turkey from a crisis in the early 2000s and hiked up average annual growth to 7 percent for over a decade, is now required to pull new rabbits out of his hat to deal with both crises. Politically, almost nothing stops him from bringing forth any legislation or decree; the central bank may be independent, but its president unofficially reports to Erdogan. On the president’s orders, he already reduced interest rates several times to encourage loans. If the budget needs tweaking or if the budget deficit was to be wildly expanded, no political opposition would stand in the president’s way.

At the same time, it is unclear to what extent Erdogan himself or his son-in-law, Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, are aware of the economic dangers such moves might entail. Especially when no one can tell when exactly the country will resume regular economic activity. Reports on disagreements between Albayrak, who opposed shutting down the country, and Health Minister Koca, who argues Turkey won’t be able to eradicate the virus without a complete shutdown, may show that serious debates are taking place, considering all aspects of this crisis. But the final decision is made by Erdogan, who said that “under all circumstances, factories and machines must continue operating.”

The president has called on citizens to donate money to the fight against the coronavirus and show solidarity, unity and loyalty to the state and its policies. The pandemic, so it seems, is an excellent political opportunity for Erdogan to make it clear to the public that he is only one who can rescue them. Those unwilling to adopt this theory, still criticizing the leader, may end up in interrogation rooms or behind bars, as has already happened to several dozen citizens who dared criticizing the government on social media.

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