Effects of Covid-19 Response on National Politics: Political Conflict Between Municipalities and Central Government in Turkey

As Covid-19 impacted the global political economy, politics has also been effected both on the national and international levels. Although on the international level we witness an argument towards the origins of the virus, and the optimal response in curbing the widespread of coronavirus, on the national level politics have staged an interaction among public and politicians shaping the governmental response. In that regard, as coronavirus was spreading to more countries and regions variety of national responses also differed greatly. While, countries were implementing measures to both curbs the spread of the pandemic, they were at the same time preparing political and economic solutions to soften the damage of the Covid-19 on society financially. Consequently, fight against pandemic has become an important element shaping domestic politics. Such a phenomenon has become eminent in Turkish politics via the efforts of President Erdogan’s measures to halt political opposition-controlled municipalities from administering solidarity and donation campaigns. Hence, in Turkey pandemic has not only underlined the political projections of administering anti-coronavirus measures but it has also become an instrument in the domestic power struggle.

2019 Local Elections and Erdogan’s Justice & Development Party

President Erdogan has been in power in Turkey since 2002. His leadership has undergone quite a transformation over the last 8 years, seizing different means to guarantee his political victory, although his party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been able to form the government with a political majority in most of the elections. On the contrary, the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has not been able to form a strong opposition and challenge President Erdogan, which has also been one of the reason’s behind Erdogan’s indisputable victory in every election. However, such a phenomenon has changed recently.

In March 2019 local elections Republican People’s Party’s candidate for Istanbul Municipality “Ekrem Imamoglu” won the elections against the Justice and Development Party’s candidate “Binali Yıldırım”. Binali Yıldırım has also served as Prime Minister, before Erdogan transformed the political regime into presidentialism. Imamoglu’s win meant not only indicated the end of AKP’s reign in Istanbul but it was also symbolic for CHP who had administered Istanbul Municipality over forty years ago last time. Likewise, despite President Erdogan’s heavy political campaign in the capital, that he also resides in, AKP had to let its grasp of Ankara municipality which it was running for the last fifteen years.

Istanbul and Ankara were not the only cities that AKP had lost the elections. President Erdogan’s party also lost local elections in İzmir and Adana. Despite the fact that AKP had won the elections in the majority of the country, it still couldn’t become victorious in the Turkey’s four biggest, population & economic contribution wise, cities. Consequently, the central government’s actions and narrative on these four cities highlighted the power struggle between Erdogan and political opposition.

Implications of Municipalities on Central Government’s Political Power

Even though municipalities’ political capability is quite limited in Turkey, they still have an immense capacity in reflecting vital limitations on the central government activities on the local level. Since municipalities administer the local projects related to public works, infrastructure, transportation, and many more, municipalities’ control over these projects forces the central government to cooperate with municipalities in order to implement the nation wide designs on sub-national level. As a result municipalities posses the power to confine the central governments’ power indirectly.

Another political projection of municipalities is that, in Turkey, via their bureaucratic performance and political stance mayors have been able to become more publicly recognized figures. President Erdogan himself had served as the mayor of Istanbul before becoming the Prime Minister. As a result, municipalities also act as the political stage where mayors practice their political leadership.

As a result, despite their limited political power, CHP mayors, especially that of Istanbul and Ankara, carry a potential to challenge the Ankara’s political decisions and gain public popularity. Hence, the central government’s response to Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Adana municipalities reflect the AKP’s political stance towards CHP.

Domestic Power Struggle Amid Covid-19

The first coronavirus patient in Turkey was confirmed on earlier of March. Till then the government has gradually implemented measures to curb the spread of pandemic. On the societal level, besides “social distancing and testing” people expected a critical part of the government’s response to be formed through fiscal packages for the families financially challenged. While most governments had chosen to sponsor families and business sectors by releasing government funded economic packages, Ankara has responded to the rising demands by starting a “Coronavirus Fund” gathering donations from public figures, celebrities, companies, and the commoners. Yet, even before the government’s donation campaign, CHP ruled municipalities have been running their own donation and solidarity campaigns to help those in their cities of duty.

Erdogan’s reaction to these municipalities had become harsh after another political rival of his, Meral Akşener, has openly declared she would donate in the campaigns of the Istanbul and Ankara municipalities but not that of the government. Central Government immediately froze the bank accounts of municipalities and accused CHP’s mayors of exercising “separatist” movements. In President Erdogan’s projections, only his presidency would be capable of running a solidarity campaign. Hence, suddenly donations have been politicized, and making donations carried a political implication transgressing mere act of “helping those in need”. In other words, what mattered was not only about whether one donates or not but it was also to whose campaign she donated. Government’s marginalization between her and municipalities’ donation campaigns were so strong, in many of his speeches ministry of internal affairs resembled Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to that of a “separatist terrorist”.

As a summary, coronavirus curbing measures bore potential implications on domestic politics. Anti-coronavirus measures had not only tested the governments’ capability of steering the wheel during the storm but also globally it has created new narratives on the capabilities of leadership. In Turkish politics, mere philanthropic donations for the ones effected from the economic impacts of coronavirus has reshaped the leadership narrative. While running a donation campaign signified politicians’ leadership claims, for commoners different charities indicated the political stance. Finally, Covid-19 has made power struggle between the President Erdogan and his rivalries more evident and showed the local-central government conflict in national politics.  

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