Last Friday evening in Turkey a surprise 48-hour curfew was announced as a new measure in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden announcement of the full lockdown of course led to a massive panic, with people rushing to stores and brawling outside bakeries, throwing all precautions and social distancing measures out the window. The sudden scandal could not even be hidden by the government media and the AKP trolls on social media, usually very skilled at spinning and obfuscating anything they see as controversial.
Besides showcasing the organizational flaws of the government’s fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey, the events on Friday night led to a peculiar turning point in Turkish politics.
- The hawkish Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, resigned Saturday night. He announced his resignation in a tweet, saying that the decision for the curfew and its failed surprise announcement was his responsibility. One’s first instinct might be to read this as a responsible political move. In a one-man political system, however, taking sole responsibility for such a big decision implies that the person taking the decision feels emboldened enough to surpass the authoritarian at the top. This simply could not fit into Erdoğan’s strongman profile as the alpha and omega of every big decision. In the realm of Erdoğanism, the only decision maker is Erdoğan, while all of the ministers are there only to implement what he says and occasionally be replaced when it is necessary to send a message that problems never arise because of the President, but because of “incompetent people around him.” By claiming he took full responsibility, Soylu basically undermined this system equalizing himself to Erdoğan. Quickly after the announcement, Erdogan rejected Soylu’s resignation and in that way reaffirmed his power to have the final say.
- An internal struggle between Berat Albayrak, the Minister of Treasury and Finance and Erdoğan’s son in law, and Soylu, which has been known for some time to the insiders of Turkish politics, surfaced after Soylu’s resignation. Pro-government media, dominated by Albayrak’s group, the infamous Bosphorus Center for Global Affairs known to lead the pro-government social media trolls, have been aggressively supporting Albayrak. The majority of the most active pro-government trolls, controlled by the Center, remained silent after Soylu’s resignation, and did not call for Soylu to reconsider the decision. While Soylu was a trending topic on Twitter, television channels close to Albayrak started speculating about the next interior minister after Soylu.
- However, unlike Albayrak, Soylu enjoys very strong support among the voter base of the governing coalition, and together with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar holds the position of an unofficial “Number 2” among party supporters, according to a number of public opinion polls. Soylu’s supporters were not in the pro-government media following the resignation, but were loud in the social media sphere and even took the streets. As soon as the curfew was over, Soylu’s supporters went out and rallied; a person in Rize even tried to commit suicide by shooting himself, seeing life without Soylu’s leadership not worth living.
- Even before Erdogan rejected Soylu’s resignation, the leader of the MHP—a junior partner in the governing coalition—, Devlet Bahçeli, tweeted that Soylu should remain a minister and put his weight behind him. Over the course of last couple of years, Bahçeli and the MHP have turned into an unavoidable element of Erdogan’s new system of rule. Therefore, Bahçeli’s influence on Erdoğan still remains strong.
The past weekend’s power play induced much uncertainty and even panic about the government’s fight against the grave danger of the COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey. However, it also revealed that new power centers within the ruling establishment have been built over time. Süleyman Soylu has always been popular with the old school nationalists, many of whom now constitute the governing coalition, but it also became clear that Soylu has strong and in some cases fanatical support with the AKP base as well. Aside from Erdogan, he is the only figure who has proven to have the ability to bring people to the streets at a moment’s notice. On the other hand there is Albayrak, who still has fairly strong support with the government-controlled media and online trolls. Albayrak is also part of the president’s family, which in an authoritarian system always turns into a natural advantage. Erdoğan for now has shown that he will try to keep the balance and maintain some sort of peace within the system. However, it will be impossible to hide the symptoms of this internal power struggle from now on.