The Political and Economic Impact of The Coronavirus Pandemic in Turkey

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On December 31st, 2019, China officially reported to the World Health Organization (WHO)  that it had detected an unknown type of pneumonia in Hubei Province. By early January, the WHO had named this new disease COVID-19 and declared a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’. As COVID-19 proliferated outside of China, the WHO announced on March 11th, 2020 that the disease had become a pandemic.1

Early efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 resulted in a variety of measures: On January 23rd, China imposed a lockdown in Hubei Province and restricted the use of public transportation. Such regulations received widespread criticism from various international organizations over their consequences for human rights and freedoms, particularly in non-democratic countries. Yet, as COVID-19 spread to different states, the practice of lockdown as a primary form of quarantine became widely used in nations including Italy, France, and Germany. By mid-March 2020, societal lockdown was a nearly global phenomenon. To date, at either the local or national level, nearly 180 countries have enacted some degree of a mandated lockdown, which has resulted in the closure of education systems and the restriction of most business activities. Lockdowns, quarantines, and other preventative measures have had far reaching impact on the political and economic wellbeing of countries around the world, including Turkey. This report analyzes the Turkish government’s response to COVID-19 through political, economic, and sociopolitical lenses, in attempt to showcase the far-reaching and potentially long-term consequences of the virus on the nation’s future. The first section of the report focuses on COVID-19 as a political phenomenon: To some observers, the implementation of curfews, quarantines, and stay-at-home orders are not simply tools to combat the spread of the pandemic: restrictions over the right to protest, closure of national and local parliaments, tightening of social media rules, and increase of executive orders have all been regarded as examples of “power grabs” by several global leaders.2

While some policies that curbed liberties have a legitimate basis in medical advice, others, especially undersome authoritarian regimes, have been received as a move towards power consolidation and a tool to exploit political freedoms.3

Turkey offers a particularly insightful example of this situation. On March 11th, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca reported the country’s first positive COVID-19 case; a day later, President Erdoğan announced countrywide regulations to combat the spread of the disease.4 As cases continued to climb, however, the government enacted additional restrictions. Following the tightening of regulations at the end of March, several civil society organizations (CSOs), professional organizations, and media agencies began to express concern over the transparency of the lockdown process. In response, the government continued to combat the spread of COVID-19 while also working to limit opposition municipalities and restrain dissent. By investigating the policies issued by the Presidency and his supporting circles this report analyzes the implications of the COVID-19 response within the overarching Turkish political sphere. This analysis focuses on actors in the major political parties and local municipalities, as well as representatives of civil society and media. The first section of the report is structured as follows: After the introduction, the methodology of the political chapter is outlined. Within this methodology, the time span, content of the governmental policies, and major political actors are clearly defined. In the third section, we examine the implications of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) or AKP’s policies concerning constitutional liberties, local governance, CSOs and professional organizations, and media. In this section, the report relates the impacts of government regulations and presidential decrees on the right to protest, legislative activities, restraints of power in the local municipalities, and disputes among representatives  of civil society. The third part of the political section is devoted to the responses of political actors impacted by the AKP government’s pandemic-based regulations. In the final section of this chapter, the report offers a conclusion in the form of both short and long-term predictions for the pandemic’s impact on Turkish politics.

The second part of the report focuses on the impact of the pandemic on Turkey’s economic status. The Turkish economy — already struggling with a volatile currency and high-risk market for borrowing — has been particularly vulnerable to the global financial devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. With international appetite for fiscal risk at a low, pressure on the lira to rebound from its current worrying-level is as high as ever. In response to such circumstances, the government has considered three major economic moves: prevent a massive budget deficit by raising taxes, despite a declining public purchasing power; widen the budget deficit in order to finance stimulus packages through public spending; or create cheap credit options for its citizens. Assessing the situation today, the government and its financial institutions opted for the third strategy and are working to generate affordable credit options for the Turkish public. Thus, the second part of the report explores the governments’ attempts to create credit opportunities, as well as a variety of supplementary measures enacted in the last nine months.

The third section of the report delves into sociopolitical outcomes of the pandemic. This final chapter draws heavily from surveys that have analyzed the Turkish public’s reactions to the virus on a month-by-month basis. The sociopolitical study offers a nuanced understanding of the ways in which socioeconomic status, age, gender, and political affiliation have impacted popular understanding of the virus. In assessing levels of public ‘concern’, the sociopolitical component of the report highlights how the overarching political and economic policies that have been enacted during the pandemic have often produced results starkly different from their intended goals. Moreover, this final section offers the greatest insight into Turkish popular opinion throughout the report, while also situating the status of the country within the context of states around the world.
Together, the political, economic, and sociopolitical sections of this report offer a multifaceted analysis of COVID-19’s impact in Turkey. All three chapters ultimately paint a worrying picture, particularly in regard to political in-fighting and long-term economic growth.

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