In the pursuit of his irredentist vision, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears bent on resurrecting not the more open-minded, liberal spirit of the Ottoman Empire’s founders, but instead the most oppressive and paranoid aspects of the sultans who led the empire to its demise.
The reign of Abdul-Hamid II, in particular, was notorious for its ubiquitous palace spies and informants, hatred of intellectuals and the press, and repression of minorities and political opposition. The novel coronavirus has made these aspects more pronounced than ever in present day Turkey. Out of desperation to deflect blame for his regime’s initial denial of the threat and then botched attempt to contain the virus’s rapid spread, Erdogan has taken Abdul-Hamid II’s instruments and equipped them with the technologies of the 21st century. The spies now lurk in cell phones and social media with logistical support from his security chief, and they are on the prowl against all who criticise and expose his government’s remiss.
Most recently, elected municipal leaders and Kurdish and other opposition groups and their supporters have come under fierce attack for having launched charity drives to help the needy whose numbers have begun to soar. It takes only a tweet and a photo to initiate a police raid on a municipal soup kitchen to confiscate the food had been destined for thousands of poor, elderly, handicapped and unemployed because, as an opposition parliamentary member put it, “Mr Erdogan and his party, they don’t want the people to see the mayors, the municipalities, helping them in these very difficult conditions. It’s a very clear political strategy, to disable the municipalities and let them be seen by the people as not serving, not doing their job.”
The Erdogan regime is not only trying to prevent opposition-controlled municipalities from doing their jobs, it is actively demonising their parties and politicians. This has long been the case with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) most of whose popularly-elected municipal leaders have been replaced by government appointed “trustees” and are put in jail or facing prosecution on trumped up terrorist charges. Now with the Covid-19 epidemic, Erdogan has been increasingly unleashing his venom against the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) which took control of Istanbul, Ankara and other major metropolitan municipalities in the last municipal elections. He has launched criminal investigations into Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas for initiating donation drives to support the fight against Covid-19, even though AKP mayors are doing exactly the same. His government has also closed down a free bread drive in Mersin, a field hospital in Adana and soup kitchens in Antalya, Mersin and Eskisehir. All these municipalities are controlled by the CHP and their mayors now await the same fate as their peers in Istanbul and Ankara, on charges of “creating a state within a state.”
As for the fate of the beneficiaries of their charity drives, that clearly pales next to his and his party’s political survival. The AKP-controlled municipalities have not been nearly as successful in their donation drives, legitimised under the slogan, “We’re self-sufficient.” At some level, this must have dented his unlimited confidence that the people will heed only his calls for support for his pet donation drives which, in turn, fired his determination to assert his full and exclusive control over all local government bodies and, above all, those controlled by the CHP whose municipal election wins in March and June Erdogan took as a personal offence.
In his clampdowns on their municipalities, Erdogan is “constantly sending them the message that ‘I own the local as well... you cannot do anything that would be perceived by me as a challenge’,” Sinem Adar, Turkey researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told AhvalNews. She could see no logic behind his actions apart from that they are acts of desperation against the backdrop of the ruling party’s plummeting popularity since the Turkish currency and debt crisis struck in 2018. “I think it is revealing, more than any time in the past, the political legitimacy crisis of the government.”
It is certainly typical of this government’s self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic that, as the novel virus began to sweep Turkey’s overcrowded prisons, it sponsored an amnesty bill, recently approved in the AKP controlled parliament, to release 90,000 inmates, roughly a third of the prison population. The amnesty excludes tens of thousands of political prisoners, a large percentage of whom are HDP members and Kurdish rights activists, while allowing thieves, rapists, drug traffickers and other hardened criminals to go free. Then he did something truly worthy of Abdul-Hamid II: he suspended parliament, ostensibly in order to “focus on the virus”. After a brief flirtation with a constitution, Abdul-Hamid II suspended parliament in 1878 and kept it suspended for 30 years. Though Erdogan only suspended parliament for 45 days, here, too, he may try to emulate his Hamidian predecessor. Opposition MPs keep asking awkward questions.
Erdogan’s actions show “something very important to citizens and the international audience: that the current government in Turkey has increasingly been losing its manoeuvring space”, Adar told Ahval. Erdogan is clearly feeling the rug of legitimacy being pulled from beneath his and his party’s feet. Although there are still three years left until the next presidential and legislative elections, he is determined to stem the tide which, to him, means taking all possible measures to repress opposition and further consolidate his own power.
One of the areas in which Erdogan has been fast losing manoeuvrability has been in foreign policy, and in Syria in particular, and the pandemic has thrown certain facets of this into relief as well. For example, last Thursday, 30 April, the US special envoy for Syria called on Turkey to “continue to put pressure on the terrorist organisations there, and the most powerful of them, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)”, in order to adhere to the ceasefire agreement in Idlib.
The Turkish-backed HTS is the rebranded edition of Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front. Ironically, these jihadists’ likeminded sympathisers are gaining political clout in Turkey as Erdogan casts about for support wherever he can find it. Recently they have declared their unlimited support for Erdogan’s battle against secularists, Kurdish “separatists” and other non-government agencies that “use humanitarian aid as a pretext to stage a coup” against his “wise Islamic rule”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly