At the beginning of the pandemic many expected that authoritarian regimes with centralized decision making powers would be better at handling coming crisis. The most frequently given example of this argument is China. This line of thinking hinged on the idea that, in order to beat the virus, hard measures like widespread lockdowns and masks mandates would be necessary; and what better way to implement this than via swift decision making of strongmen with little to no debate. By now the idea that heavy measures are the only solution to the public health aspect of the pandemic have been proven mostly or completely wrong, even by the World Health Organization. However, the factor which has had no regard for countries that decided to lockdown is the economy. In his latest work, The New Corridor, Daron Acemoğlu puts it very clearly: “Economies thrive under democracies, and they fail under authoritarian regimes.” This simple fact has become even more obvious during this time of global crisis and it has shaped these ‘Turkish-style’ lockdowns.
After several months of deliberation, Turkey began implementing lockdowns in May of last year. For months, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials claimed that Turkey had been very successful in curbing the effects of the virus. They credited the recently implemented executive presidential system. They said the new system was fast, and only a fast system could curb this disaster. This narrative worked only until it became apparent that Turkey had not been accurately reporting or disclosing its COVID-19 statistics. We saw Turkey’s daily new cases in November 2020 jump from around 6,000 to over 30,000 in a single day. Thus, the magic of the new executive decision-making system vanished and all that was left was the naked propaganda. Turkish authorities were pressured to come forward with the truth in order to maintain some semblance of credibility for the next tourist season.
Following this destructive revelation, and a very slow and uncertain vaccination process, the government decided to engage in more frequent and stricter lockdowns. Weekend and occasional holiday lockdowns have been in place for a couple of months now. At the end of April 2021, the government announced its strictest lockdown yet: 17 days.
Throughout this painful process, most businesses remained fully closed or were limited to online work. The most notable government shortcoming has been a lack of any substantive support for those struggling businesses. They have acted as if the businesses are somehow prepared for an indefinite shutdown during which they could sustain themselves. President Erdoğan stood in front of cameras a couple of times and heralded the government for handing out lump sums of around 70 dollars to those most affected businesses. It quickly became clear that beside families who lost their loved ones, the most affected part of Turkish society was its small businesses.
Additionally, a crucial component of lockdowns – preventing people from gathering – has been largely absent. Throughout the ongoing lockdown, people have continuously flowed into the streets. A park close to my home has been full of people taking walks and picnicking. Occasionally, a police car comes to tell people to go home, but hardly anyone listens. A police officer warned me the other day, as I was walking my dogs, that I was only supposed to take pets out within a 15-meter perimeter around our residences. I honestly answered that my dogs needed exercise, and there was not much I could do about it, and kept on walking. He carelessly responded while walking away that everybody was saying the same, and that nobody was listening.
Cafes are currently only allowed to provide takeout service. So, most people buy their beverages as then lounge right outside the cafes, sometimes standing sometimes sitting on the curb.
Turks are resilient, but they also have a strong statist mentality, so they usually abide by the rules. When the government told them to wear masks, they did. When the government tells them to get vaccinated, they do. When they were told to shut down their businesses, despite the consequences, they did. But when it came to the final lockdown, it seems they are no longer cooperating.
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, people seem to be fed up with the obfuscation of the statistics, the illusion of government support, and being asked to bear the burden of the pandemic alone. An astounding number of people have lost their businesses, their jobs, and their lives. Strict and frequent lockdowns would have made sense if the centralized decision-making mechanism had been effective when introducing restrictions and produced real support. It seems that Turkey has turned into a case study of how authoritarian regimes can show strength only when they have mountains of cash. In all other cases, it seems democracy would be system.