Turkish minister attempts resignation amidst coronavirus panic

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Turkish deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party and Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu (Screenshot via YouTube)

Soon after a disastrous COVID-19 curfew, a high-ranking Turkish minister announced his resignation which was promptly rejected, writes Ben Donaldson.

AT ABOUT nine o’clock on the evening of Sunday 12 April, Turkish Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu announced his resignation from government. It came only a few hours before a total weekend lockdown was due to expire. While the curfew was largely adhered to, its announcement – made late on the Friday night prior, just hours before it was due to commence – was disastrous.

Caught by surprise, Turks across the country rushed out to buy supplies, seriously disrupting the social distancing efforts that had been in place for a number of weeks. Huge queues formed outside bakeries and late-night supermarkets, with hundreds of people pressing close together in order to secure their essentials. In some cities, the sudden chaos saw brawls erupting in the street.

In fact, bakeries were to remain open all weekend and people would still have been allowed to go out for essential supplies. But whether or not this fact was actually communicated in the government decree, it was lost in the storm of rumour and speculation that followed. Some suspected, perhaps, that the 48 hours were simply a pretext for an extended curfew which might last even longer.

This uncertainty was not helped by the fact that the Government neglected to give prior notice to local municipalities – and even some of their own ministries – of the impending announcement. This included in Istanbul, where almost 60% of the country’s almost 145,000 cases are located. Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu tweeted that, as he had been given no prior notice, he had no idea which metropolitan services and infrastructure were to be online the next day.

In short, for a few hours on that Friday night, weeks of carefully calibrated government health policy were upended by pandemonium. Turkey had reported its first case of COVID-19 comparatively late, on 11 March. It had had months to observe what had already happened in China as the outbreak there entered into the final stages of its decline (though whether this lasts is another question) and in Europe as Italy and Spain began racing exponentially towards the heights of their crises.

Despite some early delays, including a slow response to the return of pilgrims from Saudi Arabia – many of whom slipped through quarantine protocols and contributed the virus’s geographic spread to all of Turkey’s 81 provinces – the Government had otherwise tried to act quickly and decisively. The day after that first case was confirmed, the Ministry of Education announced the closure of all schools and universities and the movement to an online education platform nationwide – the first country after China worldwide to do so.

Within a week, most other places of public gathering were likewise closed down or strictly controlled. In China, such measures did not begin to come into place until weeks after the virus began to attract attention on 31 December 2019. In Italy, it was three weeks after the first cases were announced before quarantine measures were introduced.

In the following weeks, Turkey rolled out more stringent measures, including bans on interstate and international travel and total curfews imposed on those under 20 and over 60. Still, the country remains in the grip of a major outbreak and at one point was showing the steepest rise in cases anywhere in the world. But there was hope Turkey would avoid the crises devastating much of Europe. Turkey has one of the highest numbers of ICU beds per capita in the world, more than 17,000 ventilators and a robust domestic biomedical industry currently producing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to be able to send surpluses to European countries in need.

With that Friday night’s blunder, hope became that much slimmer. As governments and health experts have been impressing upon populations beginning to tire of social distancing, such measures are only effective if they are sustained consistently for an extended period.

The severity of the outbreaks in Spain and Italy have been partly attributed to a single football match between teams from both nations played on 19 February in Milan, in which the virus ran rampant through thousands of tightly packed supporters in the stadium. If that was a ‘biological bomb’, then what occurred across Turkey was a one-night blitz. Like Milan, the casualties will not be fully known until weeks after the fact.

Announcing his resignation in a now-deleted tweet, Minister Soylu said that all responsibility for the implementation of the curfew rested finally with him. “Everything that we have done in the past two months has been squandered,” a friend quoted him as saying in the hours after. It followed days of backlash, both in the media and online.

But the resignation triggered a wave of support also, with more than 1 million messages appearing in social media in the hours afterwards, with the hashtags #istifakabuletmiyoruz (‘We don’t accept the resignation’) and #Sensizolmazsoylu (‘We can’t be without you, Soylu’) trending on Twitter.

President Recep Erdoğan was of the same mind, it seemed, announcing only a few hours later that he did not accept the Minister’s resignation; Soylu would continue to serve the Government. That only fanned speculation that the original resignation was a staged affair — political theatre to appease critics looking for a scapegoat. Perhaps Soylu was happy to risk falling on his sword knowing, as always in Turkey, it is Erdoğan who truly holds the blade.

The speculation did not end there, however. Amidst the labyrinthine intrigues of Turkish politics, there are always other factors at play and other interests to take into account, even in times like these. In that same interview with Turkish journalist Cüneyt Özdemir, Soylu’s friend Hadi Özişik mentioned somewhat cryptically that those critical of Soylu were not only on social media, but that there were those – perhaps rivals from within his own party – who wanted to see him out.

Whatever the truth behind the political scenes, the Turkish people have more pressing concerns. On the Monday following the curfew, it was the President who announced – now with five days’ notice – that weekend curfews would continue until further notice. But with the toll of that Friday’s blunder still yet to be counted, Turks will be hoping and praying that they don’t follow the same catastrophic path as some of their European neighbours.

Ben Donaldson is a writer currently living in Turkey.

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