Political storm hits Turkey, which has already reported more than 27,000 cases and over half-a-thousand deaths

Coronavirus revives tensions between Erdogan and the mayor of Istanbul

AFP/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting Ekrem Imamoglu, Mayor of Istanbul of the Republican People's Party of Turkey (CHP) in 2019

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world order, as we understood it until now, from one day to the next.  Alliances between countries, the evolution of democratic states and globalization have seen how the principles on which they were built began to transform in the wake of the emergence of this virus.  In this context, however, one of the values that defines us as human has become clear, and that is solidarity, a solidarity that in Turkey has revived the tension between the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the opposition mayor in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu.  

In this situation, Turkish authorities have confirmed 3,135 new positive cases of coronavirus, bringing the total number to 27,069. Controversies over fundraising and a possible closure of one of the country's financial engines have highlighted the disputes between Erdogan and Imamoglu, seen by many as the main contender of the Turkish president in the next presidential elections in 2023. 

On Monday, the Turkish president launched the 'National Solidarity Campaign' to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, a campaign for which Erdogan has donated seven months of his salary. This initiative began to work actively, with public entities, banks and groups and businessmen close to the government announcing important donations. 

El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, preside por videoconferencia la reunión del Gabinete Presidencial en Huber Villa

Local governments led by the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul had also launched fundraising campaigns to reduce the impact of this pandemic. However, the Ministry of the Interior issued a circular on 31 March blocking the bank accounts of these initiatives as they were considered "illegal". "There is no point in having a state within a state," the Islamist executive explained to AKP officials in a televised video conference, saying that no one had the right to raise funds except the presidency, according to Reuters news agency. The interior ministry threatened to act against those responsible for not complying with a law that requires asking the authorities for permission before collecting money for such purposes. 

The Istanbul municipality announced on Wednesday that it had initiated a court case to lift the blockade on its accounts and revive the fundraising campaign, according to local media reports. Eleven mayors from cities led by the main opposition party issued a joint statement calling on the Interior Ministry to reverse their movement, saying it was time to put politics aside and avoid polarization. Later, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said he had discussed the issue with Imamoglu and urged him to cooperate, not work against others. "We shouldn't be in a blind fight, that's wrong," Soylu said, emphasizing on the fact that "an unapproved fundraising campaign was illegal".

El alcalde Ekrem Imamoglu habla a los trabajadores que preparan paquetes de comida para los que lo necesitan en medio del brote de coronavirus, en Estambul

The stimulus package Ankara announced last month to help small and medium-sized enterprises and low-income citizens against the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is worth only 100 billion Turkish liras, or about $15 billion, Al Monitor reported. During an interview with Al Monitor, the vice president and spokesman of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), Faik Oztrak, insisted that social distancing measures have forced many to "choose between health and work". "If you want people to stay at home, you have to provide them with a minimum income for their livelihood," he added. 

El presidente del Partido Popular Republicano (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Given this situation, the opposition has criticized the fact that the issue of assistance to reduce the impact of the coronavirus has become politicized. According to a report published in 2019 by DISK, a trade union confederation, 16 million people in Turkey are poor and another 18 million live on the poverty line. Faced with this situation, the opposition has warned, as reported by Al Monitor, that it is unlikely that such donations will reach a large enough amount to finance all those in need.  

However, the rivalry between the two political leaders goes beyond this small dispute over the revenues. While Imamoglu wants Istanbul to be closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Erdogan is opposed to taking this step for fear of increasing the economic impact.  Turkey announced last Friday new measures to tackle COVID-19, including a ban on people under 20 from leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. In addition, Ankara has suspended all international flights and limited domestic travel. These measures are in addition to the closure of schools, bars and cafes and the suspension of mass prayers and sporting events to counter the outbreak. 

Un trabajador municipal con un traje protector rocía desinfectante en un autobús en Estambul, en medio del brote de coronavirus, el 3 de abril de 2020

"Istanbul is now clearly the focus of this disease in Turkey," Imamoglu told FOX TV last week. "Fifteen percent of Istanbul's population represents 2.5 million people, almost as many as the population of some European cities that are lamenting their situation," he added. The Mayor of Istanbul urged the city's population to stay at home shortly after the Health Minister announced that 60% of the cases in Turkey were in this city. 

The management of the coronavirus pandemic is just one of dozens of disputes between Erdogan and the main opposition leaders. Just a year ago, the country's executive branch launched a legislative project to reduce the powers of the Bosphorus City Council in order to implement a series of projects, something that the municipal government hasn't seen fit to do. 

Los ataúdes de las personas que murieron oficialmente de COVID-19 en un depósito de cadáveres de Estambul, el 1 de abril de 2020

The Turkish Health Minister, Fahrettin Koca, has assured during the last hours "that if those who are in contact with the coronavirus aren't separated, there is no possibility of controlling this pandemic," according to TRT. "If we cannot isolate those in contact during this period, we will not have a chance of controlling the disease. So, we should be able to control it first. Secondly, we should be able to diagnose the patient quickly at an early stage," he added. 

El ministro de Salud de Turquía, Fahrettin Koca, tras la reunión del Consejo Científico sobre el brote de COVID-19 en Ankara, Turquía, el 16 de marzo de 2020

In Turkey, where any issue can be polarised in a matter of seconds, this type of dispute fits in perfectly with the relationship between the government and the opposition.  On the one hand, opposition parties accuse the Turkish leader of "authoritarianism and serving his own interests" at the suggestion of imposing a curfew in Istanbul. Meanwhile, Erdogan fears that such a move would further weaken Turkey's fragile economy.