Coronavirus changes balance of power within Turkish government

Soylu’s popularity in the AKP and in nationalist circles outside the ruling party means that he is the only member of Erdogan’s cabinet who can claim a substantial power base of his own.
Sunday 19/04/2020
A file picture of Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as he speaks during a news conference in Istanbul. (Reuters)
Taking the initiative. A file picture of Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as he speaks during a news conference in Istanbul. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - A poorly executed curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Turkey’s biggest cities has shaken up the balance of power in the country’s government.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has boosted his position as a potential successor to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even though he botched the two-day lockdown beginning on April 10 and said he would step down, analysts say. Erdogan rejected Soylu’s resignation from his post.

 “Soylu has got even stronger both in the cabinet and the AKP,” Erdogan’s ruling party, journalist Murat Yetkin wrote on his political blog, YetkinReport.

 The minister handed in his resignation after hundreds of thousands of Turks stormed out of their apartments to buy supplies late on April 10 following an Interior Ministry announcement that gave citizens only a two-hour warning before the start of the curfew. Video posted on social media showed tightly packed crowds of shoppers in front of stores and bakeries. Social distancing rules and anti-coronavirus measures like face masks were mostly ignored.

Experts say the incident set back efforts by Turkish authorities to fight the spread of the virus that has killed almost 1,800 and infected over 78,000 in Turkey, according to official figures published on April 17.

 “The work of 30 days fell victim to cola and bread,” Turkish media quoted Tevfik Ozlu, a member of a scientific council advising the government in the fight against the pandemic, as saying.

Soylu took full responsibility and said he did not expect people to run out in such numbers. The two-day curfew was designed to keep citizens in Istanbul and 30 other population centres, home to a combined 64 million of Turkey’s 80 million people, confined to their apartments during April 11 and 12, a sunny and warm spring weekend.

The opposition harshly criticised the government for the poorly coordinated announcement. “City administrations were not informed, the Health Ministry was not informed,” said Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition IYI Party. “No science, no sense, no plan, no programme.”

Erdogan’s government says it has taken decisive measures against the pandemic since the first case of a coronavirus infection was detected in the country a month ago. Schools, universities, restaurants and many companies have closed, communal prayers in the more than 80,000 mosques in Turkey have been banned, but critics say the decision by the government to avoid blanket curfews for fear of increasing damage to the economy has weakened the country’s fight against the pandemic.

Erdogan himself came out swinging in a television speech on April 13, blasting his critics in the media and the opposition as “more dangerous than the virus." He also said Turkey’s biggest cities would see another two-day curfew starting on April 17. There was no repetition of the chaotic scenes of the week before when the new lockdown took effect.

Soylu, 50, was appointed interior minister in August 2016. He joined Erdogan’s AKP in 2012, having switched from the centre-right Democrat Party. Since then, he has risen to be a potential successor to Erdogan and a rival of the president’s son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

Having earned the reputation of being a strong leader and hard-line nationalist, Soylu is popular in the AKP and in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan’s right-wing ally in parliament.

Following the announcement of his resignation late on August 12, there was an outpouring of support for him on social media. Hours later Erdogan’s office said the president had rejected the minister’s resignation and told him to carry on in his job.

At first glance, Soylu’s resignation statement appeared like the decision of a politician taking responsibility for a mistake, journalist Nevsin Mengu said.

“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 Erdogan’s strongman profile as the alpha and omega of every big decision,” Mengu wrote in an analysis for the Duvar English website.

“In the realm of Erdoganism, the only decision maker is Erdogan, 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,” she added.

But Soylu’s popularity in the AKP and in nationalist circles outside the ruling party means that he is the only member of Erdogan’s cabinet who can claim a substantial power base of his own. By contrast, Albayrak’s status is rooted in his close family ties to the president.

“Erdogan for now has shown that he will try to keep the balance and maintain some sort of peace within the system,” Mengu wrote. “However, it will be impossible to hide the symptoms of this internal power struggle from now on.”

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