Burak Bekdil, Ankara-based columnist and Charles Wax Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on April 22 about the coronavirus pandemic's impact on Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's political future.
Due to the government's delays in testing patients, according to Bekdil, the official count of those in Turkey affected by the virus differ from the realities on the ground. The official death toll, currently at around 2,200, does not include the numbers recorded by medical institutions of those patients who had not been tested and died as a result of complications that could have been attributed to the virus.
President Erdoğan realized the seriousness of the pandemic as the numbers affected grew, but, concerned about the political cost of an economic collapse, sought to "keep the procurement, logistical, and economic lines still active as if there [was] no pandemic in Turkey." Curfews were enacted too late, and the resulting number of cases "increased exponentially in the first couple of weeks."
At the time the pandemic struck, the Turkish economy was already "very vulnerable in terms of fundamental balances." Based upon the double-digit inflation rates, vast depreciation of the national currency, and other indicators, "[I] am guessing that some kind of a nightmare scenario from an economic point of view awaits the Erdoğan government," said Bekdil.
Bekdil said that "potential contenders such as Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul" could pose a challenge to Erdoğan in the 2023 presidential election. Regardless of who appears on the political scene to contest Erdoğan's power, Bekdil said "the real question for 2023 is whether the opposition elements, ... different political parties and movements ... will stand behind [the] contender, or not." Without a united front to support Erdoğan's challenger, "it will be another comfortable windfall for the president."
Erdoğan's military adventures play to the "militaristic, nationalistic psyche" of Turkish voters.
Erdoğan's "Ottoman assertive policy inclinations" – his military intervention in support of Libya's pro-Islamist government, naval forays in the eastern Mediterranean, and deployment of Turkish forces in Syria – are key to his strategy for maintaining his grip on power. He knows that the tendency among Turks is to "unite behind the incumbent president or government" in the face of wars and security threats. Alongside the pandemic crisis, Erdoğan's military adventures play to the "militaristic, nationalistic psyche of the average Turkish voter" and build political support at home.
This rally-around-the-leader phenomenon has happened before. In the June 2016 elections, Erdoğan's AKP party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Afterwards, as the AKP torpedoed the formation of a new government by refusing to share power in a coalition cabinet, "Turkey was suddenly gripped by wave of terror attacks, including a suicide bombing in the heart of Ankara that killed more than 100 people." When elections were held again five months later, the AKP "increased its nationwide vote by 8.5% points to 49.5% and formed a single-party government once again."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.