Erdogan’s Heat Level: Blazing along with COVID-19.

  • +Erdogan lost a great deal of his power during the 2019 local elections.
  • +He is using the COVID-19 as an excuse to regain that control.
  • +The 2023 elections seem like a way out of his authoritarian grip. I repeat, seem.
Source: AFP/Ozan KOSE, L’orient Le Jour

Why is Erdogan’s heat level Blazing?

 Answer: He has been able to recuperate his lost grip on power.

As the Covid-19 pandemic strikes all corners of the world, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken this global health emergency as an opportunity to resume his authoritarian-like political agenda after seeing his plans halted due to the results of the 2019 local elections. 

Since he set foot in politics, Erdogan has freely expanded his power grip in Turkey and has turned the country into what now seems a pseudo-democracy. From his membership of the Welfare Party to the 2017 constitutional changes he established an order to obtain authoritarian-like powers, Erdogan has been clear and successful with his intentions to transform Turkey. 

His political career had a strong start as he won the mayoralty of Istanbul from 1994-1998 under the Welfare Party, and maintained its momentum when he founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with which he became Prime Minister in 2003. His first term was speckled with freedom and liberties for the Turkish people, but as his third term–and the last legally possible one- came to an end in 2013, his most undemocratic face came to light. He was able to become President in 2014 through the first-ever head of state elections, and in 2017 he transformed Turkey into a presidential system that gave him outstanding powers such as intervening in the legal system, freely imposing states of emergency and directly selecting top public officials. 

Regardless of the blazing “success”, he saw his power seriously tremble during the local elections of March 31st of 2019 as he lost 5 out of the 6 main cities, including his beloved Istanbul, to the main opposition- the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Ever since, Erdogan has searched for opportunities to expand the power he holds over his one-man regime. He has utilized crises, including the war against Syria, to switch the country’s priorities from tackling the economy’s mismanagement and the mounting illiberalism, to enhancing nationalism and consolidating his power; his one-man regime “thrives in this climate of fear and division”.  And even though the number of admirers has diminished, he still has the support of global giants such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as the current rising opportunity brought by the pandemic. 

What is changing Erdogan’s temperature?

Answer: COVID-19.  He’s using it as an excuse to regain absolute control.

From the moment the virus reached Turkey, Ekrem Imamoglu, the leader of the opposition and the current mayor of Istanbul, which holds 60% of infected cases, called for tight preventive measures in the country. Nonetheless, Erdogan has dismissed these calls as he fears the detrimental economic effects on an already fragile economy. As cases rose, 11 opposition-led town halls used their bank accounts for raising donations to aid people affected by the virus. Less than three days later, the President accused them of exceeding their competencies and attempting to create “a state within a state”, and consequently blocked their bank accounts. His party also vetoed a bill proposed by the opposition to prevent violence in healthcare, alleging that everything was under control but submitted a very similar legislative proposal the day after. 

This is a clear example of the efforts made by Erdogan, since the pandemic started, to undermine those who challenge him in order to retake power. He has also repeatedly alluded to the National Tax order issued during the War of Independence of 1923, which allowed the government to take 40% of all food, clothing and machinery, and could now theoretically be applied to citizens’ bank deposits. Moreover, when a news reporter asked on Twitter if this was an actual possibility, the President filed a criminal complaint against him for posting false social media messages to manipulate the public”. But this is not a new practice. The President has been accused of hiding information regarding the impact of the virus, and as journalists try their best to keep communications open, the government persistently imposes criminal charges against them.

What is driving Erdogan?

Answer: His thirst for power.

One of the main drivers behind Erdogan’s unquenchable thirst for power can be seen as his desire for the re-Islamization of a country proud of achieving early and successful secularization. To begin with, the party he founded is rooted in the confessional -and now-banned- Welfare Party, and through the expansion of power, AKP has been able to implement policies like alcohol regulation and the lifting of bans on headscarves. Moreover, the President himself was imprisoned for reciting an Islamic nationalist poem at a rally during his mayoralty of Istanbul. 

 Similarly, he has used his authority to push forward highly controversial projects, such as a 1000 room personal palace costing $615mn, and thus seeks more power to unrestrainedly complete others. A clear example would be the Kanal Istanbul, a $12.6bn project to connect the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. This plan has been strongly opposed by critics, including the current mayor of Istanbul, who warn of the vast environmental and health hazards.

And so, due to the strong resistance he faces, Erdogan’s ambitious plans can only be successful if he achieves absolute power over the media, over his opposition, and over the constitution. While the health crisis develops, he has been able to do so by halting the opposition’s projects, by incarcerating those who confront him and by undermining the voices that rebel. Just like this virus, he satisfies his thirst for power by taking it away from others, and it doesn’t seem like he will be fully satiated anytime soon. 

What does it mean for you?

Answer: It won’t be the last you hear of him.

As long as Erdogan maintains his authoritarian grip, free press will not be present in Turkey even after the pandemic has passed; he has had a long history of detaining and punishing those who criticize him and it is unlikely that this will change. Similarly, the president poses a risk to the deposits of Turkish citizens, as he could appeal to the National tax order and confiscate up to 40% of their savings. Moreover, he is consistently constraining the democratically-elected opposition by directly attacking their town halls and vetoing their proposals, which means that those who are meant to restrain him, can’t. Finally, the presidency post allows for a maximum of two five-year terms, which means that in 2023 Turkey will have elections once more, and many optimists believe that Ekrem Imamoglu – the current mayor of Istanbul- will defeat Erdogan at the ballot box. However, if he has bent and twisted the rules previously to obtain the level of power and control he currently possesses, who is to say that he will play fairly in the next elections? And how can Turkey be assured that once his two terms are over, he will peacefully walk away?