The coronavirus is exposing the flaws of Erdogan’s strongman rule

In Turkey, a video of a truck driver went viral this week, as he voiced the feelings of millions of working-class Turkish citizens too poor to observe the government’s stay-home advice.

“Now you are telling me to self-quarantine at home. Man, how can I?” he asked. “I don’t have a pension. Am not a state employee. Am not rich. I am a worker, a truck driver. If I don’t work, I have no bread. I cannot pay the rent, the electricity or water bill. That’s worse than dying. Before you ask us to stay home … stop making a fool of yourself. Take measures for us so we can take precautions for ourselves. Either I stay at home at your word and die from hunger or I die from the virus. In the end, it’s not the virus but your system that will kill me.”

Within days, he was detained.

The episode reveals the dual problems Turkey is facing today: illiberalism and economic mismanagement. Both have been exacerbated under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s one-man regime in ways that are now fully exposed by the novel coronavirus.

Of course, the pandemic is presenting all types of challenges for governments across the globe. In the Turkish case, with early measures and a vigorous stay-home policy, there is reason to be hopeful that “the curve” will not be as steep as in Italy or the United States. The streets of Istanbul have been empty for two weeks, and the compulsive in-house hygiene of Turkish households may prove to be a good thing after all. Schools, restaurants, malls, offices and mosques have been shut down, and the country is in a virtual lockdown.

But not for everyone. Factories and construction sites are still running, and the meager $15 billion stimulus Erdogan announced last week is among the lowest in the Group of 20 countries. Only $300 million is earmarked in the government stimulus bill as a one-time direct payment to families in need (2 million families are to receive roughly $150) and the stimulus for companies is deferred debt payment or more lending from state banks. Instead of offering more support to citizens in need, Erdogan was on air this week announcing a bank account number for donations.

Turkey had been broke long before the virus came along, due to a combination of bad macro decisions and its declining political prestige, souring the once-stellar investment climate. It’s a systemic problem: When one man’s will replaces all institutional policymaking, inevitably there are mistakes.

As the sole decision-maker in the economy, Erdogan has been insistent on high government spending and created a classical developing world construction bubble, with projects that span from one of the world’s biggest airports to a bridge across the Dardanelles or another bridge across Bosporus going to cronies. (The government even had a tender last week to start the construction on Canal Istanbul, another one of Erdogan’s pet projects to build a costly sea channel in Istanbul parallel to the Bosporus.)

With dangerously low reserves in the central bank, Turkey cannot tell its citizens “It’s all right. I’ll take care of you if you stay home.”

The state of our democracy is far worse. For authorities, controlling the flow of information and suppressing dissent seems to be just as important as stopping the spread of the virus. Official figures on the coronavirus are announced by the minister of Health only, with no location or geographical detail. A doctor who digressed from the official figures in an in-house workshop was made to publicly apologize, and a woman who posted a video on social media showing a newly dug graveyard was called in for questioning. There is apparently a law that says you can be jailed for “spreading misinformation” to create social panic — in this case about the virus.

The Turkish president was once a champion of democracy and expanded the share of the lower income bracket in the economic pie with reforms in health care and the economy. But with declining popularity and too long a tenure, Erdogan is now at the helm of a regime that puts preservation of the status quo above everything else.

The truck driver from the viral video was finally released thanks to the public outcry. In explaining his detention, Turkey’s minister of Interior said, with no irony, “I look to make sure that he is really downtrodden — to know there isn’t an ulterior motive.” He noted that 2,752 social media accounts were identified for propagating misinformation: “Most are outside the country,” he noted. “We’re trying to detain as many as possible.”

The Turkish case violates what political scientists call “the authoritarian bargain.” Authoritarian regimes can sustain power not only through repression but because, like the Gulf countries, they distribute resources to citizens. In Turkey, we seem to get neither the money nor the democracy — which is why the current model is not sustainable. Our society is far more advanced than this outdated system.

Asli Aydintasbas is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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