.Nothing seems to quench the authoritarian thirst for power, not even the greatest global health epidemic of the last 100 years. For some leaders, the COVID-19 global pandemic is an irresistible means to either gain additional power or consolidate it further, while silencing those who dare criticize the incumbent's handling of the crisis.
It is well known that China’s attempt to muzzle news of the pandemic while it was still in its infancy contributed to the global crisis. Elsewhere, in Hungary, for example, Viktor Orban, the country’s staunchly and proudly illiberal leader, cited the spread of the coronavirus to pass legislation that not only put the country in a state of emergency, but also effectively handed the domineering prime minister the legal power to curtail press freedom, replace existing laws through decree and hand out lengthy custodial sentences to those who break curfew.
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In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, U.S. President Donald Trump’s favourite East Asian leader, has used the global pandemic to declare a national emergency, abrogating to himself powers which, although designed to tackle the coronavirus, assure him additional budgetary powers and even the ability to take over private companies.
And then there is Turkey. Once hailed a model country for democratic reform, Turkey is now an example for authoritarian-minded leaders to follow. The country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not need the global pandemic to grant himself emergency powers – he already did that after the 2016 coup attempt, which was followed by a national state of emergency in which he purged his political opponents and pushed through constitutional amendments granting him wide-ranging and unchecked power.
However, leaving aside serious questions about the effectiveness of the government’s handling of the health crisis and Erdogan's insistence that the "wheels of the economy" stay turning, the firebrand Turkish president and his government are doubling down on their suppression of the opposition.
Turkey already holds the unfortunate title of being the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, and it is doing its best to retain that title. Journalists continued to be targeted, most notably with a criminal complaint filed by Erdogan himself against Fatih Portakal, an anchor at Turkey’s Fox News, after Portakal tweeted concern about the possibility that the government might require citizens to dip into their personal savings to contribute to the government’s coronavirus fund. Portakal was reacting to Erdogan, who was personally spearheading a national drive for donations, and subsequent reports that employees of pro-government businesses were given no choice but to donate.
Meanwhile, Halk Aygun of Halk TV was arrested for mocking Erdogan’s donations drive, as well as 410 other individuals, private citizens expressing an opinion, who were taken into custody for posting or sharing material about the coronavirus that contradicted the government’s line. Even medical professionals were arrested and then obliged to make public apologies for opinions that challenged those of the government.
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Meanwhile, Erdogan and his government pushed through a bill that would release about one-third of all prisoners from Turkey’s jails. While hardened criminals are being freed, the government has ruled out releasing political activists, including democracy and human rights campaigners and political dissidents.
Although international human rights organizations and other bodies have called their detention politically motivated and unlawful, individuals such as the one-time co-leader of the Kurdish oriented and liberal Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas and civil society leader and philanthropist Osman Kavala, will stay in jail.
If that were not enough, state authorities continue to dismiss mayors from the Kurdish oriented HDP in the southeast of the country. This is a process which began after the 2016 attempted coup in which local Kurdish authorities and mayors were removed after facing terrorism-related charges and replaced by government appointees. This is continuing unabated even after last year’s local elections.
In fact, it has reached such a level that despite winning 59 mayoral offices last year, the HDP only has 19 mayors left in office. Just last month, as the country was bracing for the coronavirus impact, eight pro-Kurdish mayors were dismissed.
Although the general election are not due until 2023, Erdogan and his ruling AKP are all too aware that much of their future success hinges on the way it deals or is perceived to have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis: Turkey now has the unwelcome distinction of having the seventh largest number of infections in the world, having overtaken China, and growing concern over under-reported fatalities.
This is why state authorities have prevented the opposition, which control the municipalities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, from spearheading donation and fundraising drives and locally-based initiatives unless overseen by a government appointee.
In other words, the government wants to take credit for efforts aimed at alleviating the hardship associated with the coronavirus and continually highlights that the president donated seven months of his own salary, opened hospitals, provided tax breaks and distributed face masks for free but overlooking farcical handlings of the crisis, such as giving only two hours' notice before declaring a weekend lockdown, causing crowded and congested queues outside bakeries and inside food markets.
When the coronavirus finally recedes and Turks break their isolation to face the economic consequences of the global pandemic, it is almost inevitable that President Erdogan and his ruling AKP will utilize the state’s coercive powers to supress critical voices while exploiting the subdued media to present themselves as the country’s saviors, thus providing yet another example for other authoritarians to follow.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents" (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1
This piece was edited on April 26th 2020 to note that Turkey’s Fox News anchor Fatih Portakal was a target of a criminal complaint made by President Erdogan, but was not arrested.