Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – Your Own Personal State of Emergency
José Duarte Ribeiro, Ph.D. candidate, Middle East Technical University
I started as a student of Sociology 11 years ago at the University of Porto. Back then, I remember when I first realised that published research in social sciences was seemingly faster than social phenomena. The pressure on academicians to publish was itself a phenomenon of our societies.
When I came to Turkey in 2016 and started my Ph.D. at Middle East Technical University, I felt precisely the opposite. Social phenomena (fuelled mostly by Turkish politics) go faster than it is humanly possible to follow, digest, think through, and analyse properly. The risk of Her gün yeni olay (Every day a new event), as in the song of popular Turkish rapper Ezhel, is simple: banalization takes over even at the most affecting events in our lives, normalizing the corrosion of institutions and the boundaries of civil liberties they are meant to set. This ultimately corrodes our capacity to understand what we are as individuals to one another in a society. Nerde ne anormal artık bana gelir doğal (Whatever is abnormal is already normal for me) is another verse of the same song.
If one thought that the pandemic would constitute an interval on the constant flow of disrupting Turkey's political events, it has been proven wrong. It only accelerated the democratic collapse already set on the move by authoritarianism .
In such socio-political contexts, remembering acquires political agency, as well as a being a necessary exercise of lucidity. It is a remembering exercise of Turkey's political events during the first months of the pandemic that I set out here.
On January 29th, my wife and I had dinner with a couple we are friends with who are also Turkish-Portuguese, at our apartment in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. During those last days of January, there were no cases of Covid-19 in Europe, and over two weeks had to pass for the first cases to reach Europe’s most affected countries, Italy and Spain. On January 29th, China, where the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 originated, had 7,711 cases and a death toll of 170 people. Neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the media were even close to voicing the possibility of a pandemic, with which we lived during our quarantined days.
That night, as we sat with our friends, I attempted a joke - "Let's kill coronavirus" – while dousing their hands with a mandarin-scented kolonya. China's situation was briefly discussed, and the possibility of it becoming a global problem was quickly dismissed. We all turned our attention to the homemade pizzas, and the recent Academy award-winning Korean movie, Parasite, which we had gathered together to watch. One month after, South Korea would register 3,150 cases.
A month and a half passed from the comedy mood of my attempted joke to the tragedy of the pandemic declared by WHO on March 11th, precisely the same day Turkey announced the first case of Covid-19. During the whole month of March, Turkish kolonya became a trend on social media, broadcast on television as a miraculous preventative measure against the virus, advised by the Health Minister, and later even presented by international media as a secret weapon.
A Secret Weapon Against Covid-19
Suppose most of you do not already know what kolonya is. In that case, you will positively identify it by its most common designation: eau de cologne or only cologne, named after the city Cologne in Germany, where it was created by the Italian perfume maker Giovanni Maria Farina in 1709. However, the taste for good fragrances in Turkey has much longer historical roots. Starting in the 9th century, rose water was used widely on the Arabian Peninsula. Later the Ottomans used it for personal cleansing and as a sign of hospitality when receiving guests. It was adapted when the Sultan Abdülhamit II encountered it from the trade routes connecting Cologne to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Therefore kolonya acquired a whole new symbolic embodiment in Turkey up to our days: the nostalgic memories of family gatherings, especially during bayram (religious holidays) as a welcoming ritual in almost all Turkish homes.
When the numbers of Covid-19 started to grow all over Europe with dramatic contours in Italy, kolonya connected aromatic pleasantness with the usefulness of containing at least 70 percent alcohol, making it a unique hand sanitiser. In a manner of weeks, the sales increased exponentially, long queues stretching at the doors of chemists and shops of known brands like the Istanbul-originating Rebul or the Ankara-based Eyüp Sabri Tuncer. But if the new preventative relevance of the antiseptic Turkish kolonya amid a pandemic is inspiring or even hopeful, politically speaking the days that followed March 11th met the authoritarianism of a septic Turkish democracy.
The largest global dataset on democracy, V-Dem, recently published its Democracy Report 2020. The results are not flattering at all for liberal democracy: "For the first time since 2001 there are more autocracies than democracies in the world". For the first time, the European Union has its first non-democratic Member State, as the illiberal democracy of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán stands ever more fiercely. For Turkey, the picture is even grimmer, as the country figures among the group that more substantially declined on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) in the last ten years. After the 2017 Constitutional referendum, a parliamentary democracy was replaced by a presidential system, and the President acquired more legitimacy over the state apparatus for a so-called ‘one-man’ regime. With the pandemic, a debate sprung up on when coronavirus meets authoritarianism, the latter only intensifies.
However, in Turkey, the decline of liberal democracy and autocratization were not intensified because of Covid-19. While that path of intensification already existed, the pandemic came instead to expose it further. As Turkish socio-political events are constantly erupting, from March 11th to April 13th, I started a project of analysing the headlines of some Turkish newspapers and Twitter trends related to the pandemic in Turkey. The results are compiled below.
While the whole picture of the timeline immediately brought to my mind the well-known metonymic phrase bread and circuses , the set of intricate events initially gathered from March 11th to April 13th can be better summarized as involving ambiguity, no transparency and authoritarianism.
On March 18th, with 191 cases registered, President Erdoğan addressed the country, for the first time announcing measures. While they were mostly to help the country's biggest companies with a 100 billion Lira package, for the people, he had the advice of "voluntary quarantine" and promises to distribute free masks and kolonya. A week later, with the virus spreading all over the country and still no sign of lockdown, the second presidential televised announcement: monthly support for low-income families and people urged to stay home. The next day, the newspaper BirGün’s headlines read Evde Kal Ama Işe de Git, which translates to Stay home but go to work too. Opposition parties heavily criticized the meagre protection for the most vulnerable workers, who cannot go into quarantine – 34% of Turkey's total employment is informal . Here we saw the first sign of the ambiguous approach of the government. It was either unable to afford a lockdown or not willing to put the country's economy at stake – “growing at all costs”, as I was once told about the Turkish political economy under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi).
One day after the presidential announcement, on March 26th, when questioned why the Turkish government was not imposing a lockdown, the Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu replied: “If citizens declare their state of emergency, tighter measures may not be necessary for now". He was clearly following on from the Health Minister's words six days before: “Everyone should declare their own state of emergency".
Immediately a new trend on Twitter satirically started, under the phrase your own personal state of emergency, after the well-known song of Depeche Mode. By introducing a new terminology – a personal state of emergency – the Turkish government accurately expressed its political approach to social isolation: externalizing to the individual the responsibility to isolate, while not providing the necessary guarantees of social protection.
To deal with such a situation, the mayors of the biggest city Istanbul, accounting for the lion’s share of the country's Coronavirus cases, and of the capital, Ankara, initiated a solidarity programme to meet the most vulnerable people's basic needs. Reaching the end of March, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, pressed by the opposition mayors' initiative, launched a national campaign under the nationalistic phrase Biz Bize Yeteriz Türkiem, which translates as We are enough for us my Turkey. That night, he displayed a series of IBANs to which people were asked to contribute for a national solidarity fund. On the next day, the accounts of the Istanbul and Ankara campaigns were blocked. Again, the justification was given by ingenious political jargon, “There cannot be a State within the State”, clearly sending a message that not even a pandemic can set aside partisan antagonisms.
Nonetheless, the main spectacle was yet to come. On the late afternoon of April 10th, a Friday, the Health Minister updated the numbers regarding Covid-19; 43,600 cases and 1,006 deaths, but gave not even the slightest mention of the lockdown so long called for by the opposition. A few minutes after 10pm, Minister Soylu announces a weekend curfew for the country’s 30 biggest cities, to start at midnight. Particularly in Istanbul, with two hours to midnight, a wave of panic overtook the streets, as people rushed to convenience stores. The minister still tried to put out the alarm with promises that bread would be delivered for free during the weekend, but the confusion had already set in.
As the show must go on, a few hours before the end of the curfew on Sunday night, the Interior Minister announced his resignation with a Tweet: quite shocking in a country not used to political accountability for a long time. However, this was followed by a Presidential press release not accepting the resignation. Monday’s Cumhuriyet newspaper headline read Saray Oyunları, translating as Palace Games. In early March, Konda, a well-known Turkish research company, published the results of an opinion poll: 45% of people in Turkish society do not believe that state institutions take adequate measures against the virus.
The last day of my timeline, April 13th, ended with the President announcing weekend curfews would continue. Back then, the newest Turkish government innovation seemed to be a curious synthesis between public health and the economy's health: the virus is not seen as a threat on working days. Months after I first submitted this text, the palace games continue to be immune to Covid-19. Turkey has seen the emblematic Hagia Sophia reverted from a museum to a mosque, and rising tensions with a fellow NATO member in the Mediterranean. Every day a new polarising event.
I do not wish to end this text with an attempted joke. A pandemic is not such a time, much less a time for bread and circuses.
 Esen, B., & Gumuscu, S. (2020). Why did Turkish democracy collapse? A political economy account of AKP’s authoritarianism. Party Politics. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068820923722
 European Commission (2019), Turkey 2019 Report, Brussels.
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