Politics and COVID-19

Coronavirus sees political polarisation in Turkey deepen

Rising tension between the Turkish government and the opposition fuels speculation of an early election as they battle over COVID-19 financial aid campaigns, triggering further polarisation. By Ayse Karabat

As Turkey’s normalisation phase began gradually on 1 June after cautious measures and advances in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the political landscape has been giving signs of an ever-more deepening polarisation and friction as rumours of snap elections heat up.

Erdogan's AKP (Justice and Development Party) has denied any snap presidential and parliamentary elections were on the horizon and said they will be held as scheduled, in 2023, but spats with the opposition have led to speculation that the government could call them early – before economic difficulties worsen and a rise in the opposition’s popularity makes defeat in three years’ time more likely.

At the heart of these speculations is the recent dispute between the opposition and the government over fundraising campaigns and a struggle to consolidate power at a time when the economy is being battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Tension between the government and the opposition flared up during the last two months, as the pandemic peaked in the country. While the two camps fought to aid the population, Turkey's already embattled economy shrank still further due to coronavirus.

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Opposition mayors investigated for fund-raising

Opposition-run municipalities across Turkey launched fundraising campaigns from which residents in need could seek financial help. These moves eventually led the Interior Ministry to launch investigations against Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, both from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Leading lights of the opposition CHP: Mansur Yavas, mayor of Ankara (photo: DW/Cem Fakir) and Ekrem Imamoglu, mayor of Istanbul (photo: Getty Images/AFP/Ozan Kose)
Men of the people: as coronavirus took hold, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas urged wealthier residents to help poorer citizens by paying off their debts to local grocers. The campaign, called "Goodness is Contagious", soon went national. Similarly, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu's "Pay it Forward" initiative, which was launched to help those with outstanding utility bills, amassed around 15 million Turkish lira (U.S.$2.1 million) within its first week

Elsewhere, state-run Vakifbank froze the donation accounts of the Istanbul and Ankara metropolitan municipalities. And the CHP-run metropolitan municipality of the southern province of Mersin said their distribution of free bread to residents in need had been banned.

The government accused them of conducting work autonomously from them, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying they were creating a "state within a state" in an address to the public on 1 April. Subsequently his party’s officials repeatedly claimed that collecting aid separately was against the law and denied any politically-motivated move behind the government's actions. They have requested that the municipalities work in coordination with the government in other initiatives.

The economic aid package introduced by the government in the wake of Turkey's COVID-19 outbreak makes up 5 percent of GDP, according to Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak. Some have asked whether this is enough, especially when compared to other countries like Germany, where the share of the relief package is more than 24 percent of GDP, a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report showed. 

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