Speaking about the coronavirus epidemic, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that “Nothing will be as it used to.” What we went through after the moment the virus crossed the Turkish border has demonstrated that this guess has gone beyond an estimate for the future and has become the reality of the state of affairs today.
During the management of the crisis, different viewpoints emerged, starting from close aides to Erdoğan and expanding outward. At several stages of this expansion we have seen developments that became quite visible – something incomparable to anything in the past.
Blunders coming out of several leaks and cracks caused grave mistakes in every field, from the advice of the Health Ministry Corona Science Council to the priority of “turning the wheels,” from the economic measures to the communications strategy. It was only too soon when it was revealed that there was actually no strategy against the epidemic. The government’s plans to manage this crisis with the least damage possible did not work at all, and the snags came one after the other. Such chaos, of course, created its own victims, damage and clashes. Escaping knowledge and responsibility does not guarantee a life-long exemption from the political bill.
The fact that so many tremors were experienced at the beginning of the process is actually the sign of severe storms to come. The Transportation Minister was removed quietly from his post within the past few weeks. Now, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s resignation, which has opened the door to numerous rumors, has ended up being an important benchmark. Then his resignation was not accepted and all the background stories accompanying these events have also become benchmarks. It was Friday night when Soylu announced a curfew by saying, “Process management realized through the directives of our Honorable President is in effect.” He later only took responsibility for the “execution,” apologized to President Erdoğan and resigned. After hours of silence and debates that confused the pro-government segment, the Directorate of Communications stated that the resignation was not accepted and that Soylu would remain in his post. Now, there will be wide speculation about how this incident unfolded, what was experienced in the background and what may happen after this.
We have not been able to completely see the true causes and effects of this incident. No matter which claims are true or not, it shows that AKP rule is at a significant breaking point. It is frequently suggested that the incident was a set up to remove Erdoğan from responsibility, but when viewed from a wider angle, that does not seem rational. The total balance of the picture in mid- and long-term does not make it look rational either if such a small repair of one’s image is taken alongside such a risky performance. It does not make a difference whether the crisis developed with Erdoğan’s knowledge or if it was a complete surprise attack. Being aware of a development does not guarantee the management of an incident, just as having knowledge does not remove one’s obligations. No matter how the incident developed and what outcome it will bring, there are certain points that are clear in terms of the AKP and Erdoğan.
We have lately started seeing the difficulty of “barely managing” other crises, especially in regards to the economy and in problem areas such as the Syrian issue. This management crisis has become totally public when it comes to the corona chapter. Despite the fact that the process was definitely not conducted transparently, the management difficulties and weaknesses in capacity have become utterly obvious. Stumbles occurred repeatedly in all fields, from tests to masks and from precautionary measures to economic initiatives. We have watched decisions be revised and the laws and regulations be violated. This raw starkness continued with the curfew decision on Friday in terms of the style in which the decision was made, the medical and political damage it caused and the sharing of the responsibility afterward. Even though we will never be able to learn completely what happened in the background of this incident, the awkwardness of the event was the same from the beginning and to the end. As academic and writer Dinçer Demirkent pointed out, “Soylu took the political responsibility that did not belong to him from the person that held it. Actually, the responsibility of the act that was performed has stayed exactly where it was before.”
In other words, the resignation story, which we are not used to in the AKP era, confirms that a political and managerial mistake occurred, and that responsibility arose from this error. This responsibility for the mistake is something that won’t be able to be written off by accusing “fools” or “ignorant” group.
For some time, regarding almost every crisis, we have been hearing more reference to interest groups in the government circles, cliques fighting for dominance, and rival teams. Sometimes surrounding a court decision, sometimes concerning an economic practice, and now in this coronavirus crisis, background information is circulating that says that the actions of certain groups are having significant effects. These rumors intensify as difficulties grow and as the political bill increases. Some believe these rumors are spread to create a scapegoat; some others believe the one-man regime is now the scene of struggle for the influence of small cliques. The truth that lies under all these evaluations is that nobody can talk about a perfectly functional and effective management. The claim that the president did not know about the VIP Friday prayers held at the Presidential Palace during the same week that Friday prayers were banned does not protect the system or its leader. The same goes for the charisma of the leader who knows, but only watches, that all mistakes stem from those underneath him and even from the disputes among them. This image does not change whether these cliques exist or whether they are just rumors.
The confusion among the governing circles that started on Friday and climbed into a total deadlock with Soylu’s resignation show that there are abundant possibilities regarding the incident’s background and its future. Support of Soylu on social media after his resignation did not spread to pro-government media and other “authorized” personnel quite as quickly. As a matter of fact, there was a surprisingly long period of silence and inaction. There were even comments that said the style of the resignation was an additional difficulty for the President. Following the rejection of the resignation, both Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın and Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun shared posts that favored Erdoğan and his injured image. At the end of the day, the evaluation that Süleyman Soylu has become stronger politically with this move prevails.
Soylu also attracted attention in 2018 when he implied that he would resign. Now, with the support he has gained from social media, he is an actor with his own political power, which is not typical within government circles. If there is a game, we can say Soylu has won a set, but it is a bit early to comment on whether he has won the game overall. We need more data and time to understand whether a political career will stem from a grave mistake.