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  • Sujena Soumyanath

COVID-19 Escalates Turkish Authoritarianism

As of October 1, 2021, Turkey has reported 64,229 COVID-19 related deaths, a somber statistic arriving after months of outbreaks, lockdowns, and vaccination efforts. Like many countries, Turkey has had to balance economic interests with public health, resulting in a disjointed response to the pandemic. What makes the country’s COVID-19 response more complicated than others, however, is the pandemic’s role in the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s accumulation of power.

Turkey’s geographic position has long made it a key player in global politics, and just twenty years ago, the country seemed to be on track towards democracy. This came after several decades of political unrest in the form of military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. A key factor in Turkey’s democratic success was the economic liberalization of the 1980s, which saw Turkey’s entry and later growth in the European community.

In 2002, Tayipp Erdogan ran for election as Prime Minister and won. The international community met his victory with optimism that he and his Justice Development Party (AKP) would continue Turkey’s liberalizing reforms.

In his first few terms, Erdogan legitimized these hopes by strengthening civilian institutions and accepting EU reforms that reduced the military’s political influence. He also lifted religious restrictions on Islam that the secular ruling elite had put in place. By 2010, Erdogan had successfully brought balance between Islam and democracy within Turkey.

The 2011 Arab Spring significantly altered this balance, however. The influx of Syrian refugees, the demise of the ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party, and the mounting threat of the Islamic State (IS) created regional instability that triggered a democratic regression. In this state of uncertainty, Turkey’s openness to “big-man rule'' or a sole authoritarian leader, paved the way for Erdogan’s rise to power.

After eleven years as prime minister, in 2014 Erdogan became President of Turkey and converted the position from a ceremonial title to a position of significant, wide-encompassing authority. In elections in the following years, Erdogan and the AKP silenced opposition and took over the media to propagate their own agenda. Then, in 2016, an attempted military coup threatened the new leader. Instead of becoming less powerful, however, Erdogan used the turning point to begin a massive crackdown on opposition and further enforce his influence.

The United States Department of State reported that since the coup, authorities have dismissed or suspended around 125,000 civil servants and one-third of the judiciary. Additionally, almost 100,000 citizens were arrested or imprisoned, and the government closed more than 1,500 non-governmental organizations, all on terrorism-related grounds. These actions effectively secured Erdogan unchecked power in Turkey.

With Erdogan’s authoritarian ascendancy also came the abuse of citizens and subsequent international outcry. Under Erdogan’s leadership,Turkey’s list of human rights violations has included censorship of journalists and the media, detainment of human rights defenders, torture, enforced disappearances, and the killing of civilians in the Kurdish conflict.

Prominently, the Human Rights Association found that in 2019, 1,477 individuals reported being subjected to torture and ill-treatment while in official detention centers. More recently, in 2021, an estimate of 87 media workers and journalists were detained because of their journalistic work. These injustices have put a strain on Turkey’s proposed EU accession, as well as its relationship with the United States, and display a concerning shift in the country away from democracy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further enabled the perpetration of human rights violations within Turkey. According to the Human Rights Watch, provincial governors used the pandemic to selectively ban peaceful protests of various groups including political opponents. Additionally, the Turkish government introduced legal amendments under the pretext of COVID-19 to exclude individuals who had been unjustly convicted under anti-terrorism laws or held in pre-trial detention from early release.

In addition to furthering Turkey’s authoritarianism, the pandemic has also revealed negative implications of the country’s centralization of power. From the exclusion of the Turkish Medical Union from the Health Advisory board to the 2011 shut down of Turkey’s sole vaccine development and production institute, professional organizations vital to fighting the pandemic were weakened during Erdogan’s rule. These closures crippled Turkey’s infrastructure, leaving it inadequately prepared to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, early in the pandemic, the AKP government undermined the seriousness of the public health situation through various cover-up measures including propaganda and journalist crackdown. In one case, two journalists were arrested while reporting on cases at a local hospital. The result of these self-preserving measures was that by April of 2020, Turkey had one of the steepest coronavirus curves in the world.

Whether before or after the pandemic, the AKP’s media censorship has been a calculated, recurrent tool to retain political power, and has decreased public awareness of the conditions within Turkey. According to Transparency International, Turkey dropped 9 points in the Corruption Percentage Index between 2013 and 2018. Additionally, Turkey now places among countries with the worst income inequality and the largest population below the poverty line.

In addition to causing internal strife, Erdogan’s authoritarian leadership has caused increased regional instability. The country has seen a decline in economic well-being and strength of its state institutions, and the AKP’s actions have worsened foreign relations: most recently, the Turkish government openly condemned the US decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem.

The internal conflict in Turkey reflects a global threat to democracy: electoral authoritarianism. This pattern of political behavior starts with an initial power gain, then moves on to subsequent repression of opposition and modification to the electoral system resulting in a troubling consolidation of power.

In Russia, Putin mirrored Erdogan with a gradual consolidation of power undermining democratic institutions and government accountability and transparency. In 2020, Putin signed a provision that allowed him to serve as president until 2036. Hungary saw a similar development when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has voiced support for Erdogan and Putin’s policies, began enacting measures that eroded democratic institutions and manipulated the electoral map after his election.

Today, the intersection of increasing electoral authoritarianism and the COVID-19 pandemic have fostered unprecedented circumstances in Asia and Europe. In the case of Turkey, internal instability interacting with a global crisis has created a positive feedback loop of change. The pandemic enabled the further consolidation of power, which resulted in a weakening of institutions and economic well-being, exacerbating the pandemic further. Ultimately, the conditions in Turkey are a product of years of power disparities that have destabilized the very foundations of the nation. For other nations at risk of election authoritarianism, Turkey exists as an example of both the dangers of authoritarianism, especially in crises, as well as how disasters may reveal centralized power’s insufficiencies.


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