The term absurd is usually not sufficient, but would be the closest to a one-word description of contemporary Turkish politics. The latest political front has been opened between the municipalities and the national government over the relief efforts for the COVID-19 crisis. 

In the first round of the punching match, the Ministry of the Interior banned the Ankara and Istanbul municipalities from collecting donations and help for people in need. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu defended his actions by saying that allowing the CHP municipalities to collect donations would set a precedent that would allow the HDP, a boogeyman of Turkish politics, to do the same.

In Mersin, the municipality was giving handouts of basic supplies to the people during a lockdown; the city governorate, appointed by the President of the Republic, quickly jumped in and prohibited the municipality from handing out free bread. The order was that the bread produced by the municipality was to be handed out by the “VEFA” group which operates under the Ministry of the Interior. 

Over the course of the last few years, the Turkish state has adopted many characteristics of a party state. It has become the new normal to frequently hear professional state employees openly praise the AKP and Erdoğan. Bureaucrats have been acting like party members rather than state officials. So in this latest battle, the formally non-political governors employed well-known AKP weaponry against the opposition. 

In Istanbul, the opposition-governed Kadıköy municipality arranged mobile concerts on trucks. Music bands would play around the district to boost the motivation and joy of the people in lockdown. However, the district governorate banned the trucks on the grounds that the documentation obtained by the municipality was incomplete. The spokesperson for the Kadıköy municipality said the reason for the incomplete documentation in the first place was a lack of response from the governorate. The final result of this theater of the absurd: a police report was written against the driver of one of the four trucks, and one of the members of the band was interrogated.

In İzmit municipality, governed by the CHP, the local administration wanted to hang Turkish flags for the approaching national holiday. AKP municipality workers jumped in and prevented even this basic exhibition of the national spirit.  

This war of absurdity has a historical base. Over the course of the last several years, the main point of AKP’s narrative against the CHP-led opposition was that they would criticize, but never act. President Erdoğan continuously used the description of the opposition as not being able to “even herd three sheep,” and this narrative worked with the big chunk of government’s voters.

The AKP also formed a symbiotic relationship with its voters. For the last 20 years, AKP handed out help to the needy, predominantly in the poorer parts of the cities. Rather than providing opportunities for good education, so that the generations in need would be more equipped to find better jobs, or even organizing help in official ways through state institutions, AKP handed out this assistance as a political party, using the infrastructure of the municipalities they governed. This created a sort of an emotional gratitude among the recipients towards AKP, so the relationship between the voters and the party became more sentimental over time; additionally, these voters understood that if the AKP were to lose power, the handouts would vanish too.

Both of these points were seriously tested after last year’s local elections. Soon after the takeover, many municipalities now governed by the opposition started working hard, reaching people in need, organizing assistance and quickly proving they can be successful in delivering municipal services even in the new political garment.  

The AKP has become increasingly anxious about losing the symbiotic relationship with its voters it has built and nurtured over the years. Losing this would directly undermine the very foundation of the AKP’s political discourse which claims that the AKP is the sole political party to successfully govern and serve in Turkey. 

As the AKP government started thinking that they themselves are the state, they seem to have forgotten the first rule of democracy: politicians do politics to win, to lead, and to serve. Now that the CHP is fully in the governance game, they want to serve and they want to win. In that sense, the period to come will be tougher for AKP, but it could also bring new challenges for the opposition, who will not only have to battle the AKP but also the absurdity of the state apparatus acting like a party machine.