Traditionally, in times of crises, President Erdoğan’s face has not been the one to appear on television screens. Like every tactical politician, he does not like to be the one giving the bad news. For example, in February of this year, 33 soldiers were killed in Idlib, Syria. It was not Erdoğan who announced this, but the governor of Hatay who took one for the team and delivered the information about the tragedy.

On March 30, Erdoğan was scheduled to speak after a teleconference meeting with his ministers and give the people an update about the developing situation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on Turkey. Considering that Erdogan has been building the political system in Turkey so that only his words carry real weight, people were rightfully very curious about the address. In particular, many wondered if he was going to announce a tight nationwide curfew or an update to the ineffective economic aid package he announced last week.

Erdoğan started his speech by praising Turkey’s pandemic mitigation efforts; in his well-known fashion of boosting nationalist spirits, he emphasized that Turkey was much more successful in fighting the virus than Europe and the United States. He also added that Turkey will not stop its economy and will continue production. 

And then the President announced a measure that was unexpected for most. Rather than exploring new avenues of how the state can help the struggling economy and the people, Erdoğan announced the beginning of a charity campaign to raise the money necessary to keep the economy going. As the first step, he promised to donate seven month’s worth of his own salary. He then invited everyone to join and dubbed the campaign “We Are Enough For Each Other,” reinforcing strong national positions that hold that Turkey does not need to look for help from the IMF or other international entities. This way, the Palace implied that, rather than ringing the bell of Bretton Woods institutions, it will knock on the doors of Turkish citizens and ask for money.

Social media quickly filled with criticism against the campaign, as many claimed they already pay regular “donations” to the state, called taxes. Some noticed that Germany, the country that Erdoğan said was “jealous of Turkey for building the new Istanbul Airport,” has announced billions of Euros in a support package to its economy and people. Cynics could say that the second-largest airport in the world is not a great insurance asset at a time when the government is asking people attacked by the virus to donate money from their pockets. 

On the other hand, some businesses close to the Palace seem to have already started to follow Erdoğan’s lead and make donations. In this case, clientelism could produce some positive externalities.

The economy has been brought to a near halt almost all over the world, and this could turn out to be the biggest global challenge of our lifetime. When economic systems and formulas become futile in fighting a crisis, the only thing we as humankind can and should turn to is massive solidarity and a reinvigorated understanding of what humanity means to each of us, and to us as a collective. However, the Turkish government seems to have turned this around and become the only state asking its people for money.

Another question regarding this unconventional initiative by Erdoğan’s government is much more mathematical in nature. One has to wonder about the extravagant state expenditures of more than 170 billion US dollars of tax revenue collected by the government last year. A simple, logical question at this time has to be whether Erdoğan’s new palace should really cost 20.8 million U.S. dollars per month of taxpayers’ money. Dreamy military campaigns in Syria and Libya, giant mosque projects in Africa, and the building of the longest and most expensive bridges to cross, all seem to have ultimately drained Turkey’s budget. 

Populist leaders such as Erdoğan build their personality cults upon grandiose and megalomaniac projects. These usually work well in the construction of the leader’s political strength when the money is flowing. Erdoğan’s ambitions to end up in the textbooks as the greatest leader in the history of the Republic were able to be implemented due to the luxury of Turkey’s vibrant market and general lack of interest by a large part of the public about the state’s wasteful spending. However, at a time when Turkey, just like the rest of the world, is under grave threat from a new, unknown virus, and the state has to indirectly admit that it could soon be unable to pay for the basic needs, it is becoming obvious how costly this populist megalomania is.

Not only are Turkish people left to defend themselves from the virus on their own, now they are being asked to fill the financial holes of their government’s responsibility. If not more humane and more in solidarity with one another, people in Turkey could at least come out of this crisis more aware of the relationship between their government and themselves, and more in tune with the spending of their taxpayer money.