Turkey’s Erdogan Has Found a Cure for Coronavirus

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. 

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.

People wearing facemasks flock to Bayrampasa market in Istanbul on April 17, 2020 before the imposition of a coronavirus curfew AFP

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. In recent weeks, several journalists were arrested, most notably Fatih Portakal, an anchor at Turkey’s Fox News, after he 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. Portakal joins other journalists such as Halk Aygun of Halk TV 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.