Erdogan’s Predicament: Can Populism Survive the Pandemic?

Ömer Taşpınar

AFP Photo: Bulent Kilic

Populist leaders like Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan are by nature insecure creatures. They govern by demonizing their political rivals and their worst nightmare is to end up in opposition. Given their tenuous relationship with the rule of law, losing power often means losing their freedom, and sometimes much more. They have an insatiable yearning for mass appeal and want to be loved as much as feared. The result is a kind of schizophrenia that rewards sycophants and breeds systemic corruption. Under normal circumstances, these regimes survive thanks to manipulation and propaganda. They control the news cycle, set the agenda and create the illusions of success for mass consumption.

But these are not normal times, and Erdogan’s Turkey is no exception. When the pandemic forced him to shut down large parts of the economy, Erdogan quickly discovered the limits to his ability to distort reality. No populist leader can survive mass unemployment and collapsing finances. Sooner or later, social unrest becomes inevitable. Today, thanks to Covid-19, Erdogan’s Turkey – a textbook case of populist autocracy – is facing such a governance crisis.

Turkey already was going through an economic downturn long before the virus came along. Consumer confidence was low and new foreign direct investment almost at zero since 2018. Erdogan saw the impact of these dynamics and paid a heavy political price last summer in local elections.

Normally, the fact that he and his party lost Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and almost every other major city should have served as a clear warning. People voted in favor of change and better economic management. Erdogan’s favorite method of creating the illusion of growth and prosperity with grandiose construction projects had failed miserably. The financial malaise was too deep to be hidden by window-dressing. Yet he still insisted on fueling the construction bubble with low-interest loans instead of implementing much-needed macroeconomic reforms.

Now, with the pandemic taking its economic toll, Erdogan is facing a much bigger debt crisis. Small and medium-sized companies are paralyzed with the sudden halt in consumption, and the Turkish lira has hit an all-time low against the US dollar. Foreign reserves are low and a solvency crisis appears to be around the corner. If the economy fails to recover, Turkey will have to go to the International Monetary Fund once again for a lifeline.

To make things worse for Erdogan, the Turkish people know that the buck stops with him. Because of his monopoly on power and the imperial-style presidency he created, he doesn’t even have a prime minister to blame.

The fact is, most of the blame for mismanaging the pandemic does indeed fall on the president. Even as the number of Covid-19 cases soared, Erdogan resisted calls to order a national lockdown. Leading those calls was the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising star within the opposition Republican People’s Party and widely regarded as a possible future candidate for the presidency.

Erdogan continues to resist needful action because he fears such a move would make all economic activity grind to a halt. He also does not want Imamoglu to get the credit for any national initiative. In fact, he is afraid that the opposition, which controls major cities, will do a better job of managing the crisis than the central government. This is why he stopped municipal fundraising drives meant to help the poor.

Meanwhile, Erdogan and his government pushed through a bill that would release about a third of all prisoners from jails in order to contain the spread of the virus. The key detail to note is that while hardened criminals are being freed, the government will not release political activists, including democracy and human rights campaigners and political dissidents.

The clumsiest move by the government came in April. To the surprise of many, the government introduced a weekend coronavirus lockdown in 31 cities just two hours before it took effect. Thousands rushed to stores to stock up. Many of them were not wearing the mandatory face masks. Images of crowded streets prompted criticism of how the government had imposed the lockdown, leading to the resignation of the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu. Erdogan rejected his resignation because he did not want to look weak.

All this bravado will soon come to an end, however. Recently, Turkey quietly announced a delay in activating the Russian-made S-400 missile-defense system. The purchase of Russian military hardware by a Nato member had infuriated the US. The last thing Erdogan needs now, at a time when the economy is in freefall, is to face American financial and military sanctions, which are awaiting ratification by the US Congress.

Market analysts have interpreted this decision to delay commissioning the S-400s as a sign that Erdogan will soon have to ask for financing from the IMF. And nothing ends populism faster than IMF austerity packages. Yes, populists are insecure creatures, and right now Erdogan is probably the most insecure of all.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.