The bright post-pandemic vision of President Erdoğan

The problem is what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls 'the danger of transition into a continual state of exception' in which the exception is no longer the exception but the norm.

Turkey’s national 'Scientific Board' is known to have advised President Erdoğan on the essentiality of a government-imposed curfew to suppress the spread of the coronavirus in major cities, primarily in Istanbul where 60% of the national cases have been diagnosed. Similarly, all the country’s major labour organizations of the country have emphasized the necessity of the introduction of a basic citizen income to fight destitution for the duration of the crisis.

Erdoğan, on the other hand, has persistently appealed to the nation’s commonsense in complying with calls for voluntary quarantine. His addresses to the nation since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and announcements of economic support initiatives have however led to perplexity among the audience. Some of the contents of the first package – tax discounts for airline tickets,when the entire airline fleets are grounded, and for hotel accommodation at a time when tourism had come to a total halt– were rather puzzling. In a subsequent speech, the president gave a bank account number to the nation asking them to donate to a state launched charity established to bridge the gap in state assistance for the disadvantaged.

Erdoğan administration’s handling of the crisis has come under fierce criticism from the opposition. The reluctance to impose a curfew has in particularly been cited as a choice to rescue the economy by sacrificing public health. The decision not to provide an income subsidy and the presidential call for charity donations are also under fire,with opposition leaders pointing to previous cases of mishandling of social funds at Erdoğan’s disposal. The exclusion of the country’s main physician organizations from the Scientific Board and the suppression of the flow of information on the course of the outbreak have been criticized as symptomatic of a partisan and authoritarian approach.

In a climate of opacity and restricted communication, rumours with exaggerated figures of the toll of infected and dead, and on the shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment, are increasingly heard, causing further incredulity towards official statements. Another emergency measure against the outbreak, the release of inmates from state prisons, has been delayed and probably drowned in political debate, which may lead to deaths en masse in near future. 

In summary, the opposition sees a comprehensive failure of the government in crisis management. Erdoğan’s approach is frequently compared with that of the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in downplaying the seriousness of the public health threat. However, the diagnosis of failure and haplessness may prove to be wrong, given Erdoğan’s extraordinary skills at turning crises into opportunity. Looking back the period of unprecedented violence between the June 7 and Nov. 1 2015 elections and their political outcome could be illuminating of these possible opportunities.

Crises and opportunities: “The Shock Doctrine”

The June 2015 general election saw the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) become the third largest political party in the Turkish parliament after it garnered 13 % of vote, while the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) posted a notable decrease in support, from 50% to 41 %, in the process losing its parliamentary majority. The elections had followed a ceasefire between the government and the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and were held as the conflict between the Kurdish forces and the jihadists continued in north-east Syria. 

The balance in parliament required the formation of a coalition cabinet and the then prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, engaged in negotiations to that effect. From July onwards, simultaneous to these talks, a series of bomb attacks aimed essentially at pro-HDP gatherings around the country were conducted allegedly by pro-Islamist ISIS cells, with deadly blasts at Suruç on July 20 and Ankara on October 10. The Suruç attack claimed 32 lives and injured more than 100 while the Ankara bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history, with a death toll of 109 civilians and a further 500 injured. 

In the meantime, the ceasefire had ended and security operations were launched in the town centres of majority Kurdish provinces of Hakkari, Sur (Diyarbakır), Cizre and Nusaybin (Mardin), leading to hundreds of casualties including the death of at least 310 civilians, according to reports by human rights groups. In this climate of near war, President Erdoğan declared on August 24 that, as the coalition initiatives had failed, snap elections would be held on November 1. 

The traumatic atmosphere of insecurity was so unprecedented that political analysts had difficulty in postulating its consequences. At that juncture, Naomi Klein’s thesis of “Shock Doctrine” seemed to be only source that provided the tools necessary to make the situation intelligible. 

Klein bases her thesis on the post-war experiments of memory erasure through electroshocks applied to psychiatric patients in the United States. These “scientific experiments” aimed to erase the existing records of the subjects’ brains and then refill their memories with certain messages by which their personalities were expected to be reconstructed free of disorders. The experiments led to total failure and caused suicides and triggered psychosis in most of the patients. 

Klein observed that, despite its failures, shock doctrine became a political method of social transformation introduced to US-dominated countries, beginning with Latin America. Coupled with the Chicago School’s neoliberal economic doctrine as championed by economist Milton Freidman, these interventions aimed to destroy the entire political and economic structures of a country to clear the grounds for reconstruction. The destruction in many cases included the physical infrastructure along with the paralysis of social and cultural life. Klein documents cases of the implementation of this US policy around the world from Chile to Iraq throughout recent history. Trauma, shock and destruction, according to this approach, are not necessarily negative phenomena, to the contrary they are the preconditions of reconstruction and revival; every rebirth is necessarily preceded by death.

The consequence of the disruption of the chemistry of social subjects through systematic shocks is the elimination of the capacity of reasoning and rational thinking. The injection of a new set of memories into the erased social mind consisting of certain ideas and values thus becomes possible. 

It was easy to see, after the five month period of violence in 2015, how a society disrupted by systematic shocks would opt for the choice not of change but security. Under the threat of death, survival becomes the priority over political choice. Regaining most of their previous parliamentary seats in the snap elections of November 1, the Davutoğlu-led AKP once again came to power in its own right. The HDP suffered a decline in support to 10.7% of the vote, narrowly hovering above the national threshold needed to win seats in the parliament. 

To summarize, the five-month period of violence between June 7, when the AKP could not come to power alone, and November 1, 2015, saw two major bomb attacks, security operations, detentions and arrests across Turkey, curfews in eastern and southeastern provinces and hundreds of civilian deaths.

It is not a dissident conspiracy theorist but Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister of the time and now novice opposition politician, who recently referred to the time slice between June 7 and November 1 2015 as: “one of the most critical periods in the history of the Republic of Turkey” and said: “If the past is raked up about counter-terrorism, several people will not be able to go out in public”.

After the AKP’s victory in the snap elections, security operations in the Kurdish provinces continued along with further arrests of HDP politicians. In a subsequent socio-political shock, the failed coup attempt of July 15 2016, Erdoğan saw the opportunity to introduce the presidential system through a referendum held under emergency rule conditions. 

“State of exception”

During his first address to the nation on the outbreak of coronavirus epidemic, Erdoğan said: “A better picture than we hope for is waiting for us”. The Russian and Hungarian experiences may hint at what this bright future may entail. In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban grabbed extraordinary powers to rule by decree for an indefinite period. One of his first decrees made it a criminal offence to communicate any unofficial information about the coronavirus. In Russia, new surveillance measures have been introduced to monitor the population: in order to step out of home everyone has to submit the reasons online, and then be tracked via their smartphones. 

The problem with these developments is not so much with their implementation in a public health emergency, but what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls 'the danger of transition into a continual state of exception' in which the exception is no longer the exception but the norm. Having been ushered in to help manage the present coronavirus threat, an argument could be made for enhanced surveillance practices to be maintained to mitigate hypothetical future threats. It can be easy in troubled times to introduce extraordinary legal measures though with a return to a so-called normality it may be far more difficult to end them, or to find the will to do so in the corridors of power.

These potential threats to citizens’ constitutional rights are probably what constitute the President’s vision of a bright post-pandemic picture.

March 21, 2020 Newroz: Turkish névrose