During the 2008 financial crisis, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gambled and publicly declared that Turkey would “turn this crisis into an opportunity.” This paid off politically: the crisis didn’t hit Turkey hard, and Erdoğan affirmed his status as a proud and capable leader able to save the nation from the recklessness of Western financial speculators.
“Turning a crisis into an opportunity” or the philosophy of “crisotunity” has since been the instinct of the AKP government. Perpetual crises became the vessels of AKP’s calls for national unity and strengthening power. Often avoiding dealing with the real causes of these crises, AKP at times even chose to simply present losses as victories.
The reality of the COVID-19 crisis overshadowed some pre-existing conditions Turkey has been dealing with for some time. The troubled economy has been made a secondary issue for now, and the failed Syria policy has been stored on the shelf; all eyes have become fixated on the survival strategies for the unprecedented attack by the viral plague. In a political sense, another “crisotunity” opened a new range of propaganda possibilities for Erdoğan’s government. The time to talk about real issues again has been squeezed out by the instinct to inflate national pride.
The central point of the Turkish government’s narrative during the epidemic has been the supposed exhibition of the “humane capabilities of Turkey’s system against the coldhearted inadequacies of the systems in the West.” As a part of this, the Turkish government has even been sending equipment and supplies to many developed countries, including the United States, with an undertone of Turkey’s supposed power over those countries in this time of crisis.
The latest in line of the examples in this storytelling has been the case of a COVID-19 patient, an ethnic Turk from Sweden, Emrullah Gülüşken. In an emotional viral video a few days ago, Emrullah’s daughter, Leyla, asked the Turkish government to help her father. She claimed her father was taken to hospital in Sweden, where the doctors determined he contracted the new virus, but that his overall condition was good and did not require hospitalization. However, Leyla further explained that her father has been suffering from a heart condition and this made her very worried that the Swedish doctors have not taken the situation as seriously as they should have. The story was immediately perceived to be a golden propaganda opportunity in Turkey. President Erdoğan personally intervened, and a private plane was sent to Sweden to take Gülüşken and his family back to their true home. The whole process was documented and promoted in detail.
Since the beginning of the epidemic, millions of Turks have been posting all sorts of videos online every day. Some have complained about not being able to find medical masks in Turkey, including some health workers. A group of businessmen spoke of not being able to find answers about promised financial aid from the state as a part of the stimulus plan for epidemic relief. Many individual stories were also posted by people who cannot make ends meet with the mere 1000 lira the government provides to people who are unemployed due to the epidemic. Thousands of videos, posted daily, of people calling for help have been flooding the online platforms. And while the vast majority of these cases remain unanswered, the Turkish government decided to take on the case from Sweden and make it a top priority of the highest state officials, including the President himself.
The answer could be found in the fact that, unlike domestic cries for help, the Swedish affair carried the potential for the reinforcement of the government’s central message of their communication strategy during the crisis: “Unlike the incapable hypocrites over there, here we care, and here we can.” Erdogan has personally called Gülüşken’s daughter to confirm that her father is now in the compassionate and capable hands of the Turkish state. Indicatively, but probably not surprisingly, Gülüşken’s Facebook posts from even before the crisis have revealed highly emotional admiration for Erdoğan and likely connections to AKP’s Swedish branches.
Throughout the epidemic crisis in Turkey, the AKP establishment stayed disciplined in sending a message about the stability and resilience of the system. Even at times when it was obvious that Turkey has been experiencing a surge in the new infections and became the seventh country in the world by confirmed cases, the government prioritized sending the message of a calm, well-planned systematic response, exactly as many Western countries also did. However, besides praising the domestic system, the government-controlled mainstream media in Turkey was also staying on message by representing the entire Western response as “Italian and Spanish chaos” while purposely avoiding the examples of the many countries that have been relatively successful in dealing with the crisis. In a subtle anti-imperialist drive, these media outlets painted an imaginary picture of a collapsing Western world and the reemergence of the new global leader — not missing any opportunity to polish AKP propaganda. This communication strategy has proven to have worked well mainly within the core voter base of the ruling establishment. However, once this latest crisis, upon which Erdogan and the AKP continue to build their image of uncompromising counter powers to Western hypocrisy, ends, the hibernation period for the real problems will also end. At that point, it seems unlikely that the gratification of national pride through the media-based “conquering” of Sweden will be satisfying for those who will want answers about their declining quality of life.