image Photo: Reuters

Turkey’s COVID-19 curfews stir political rivalry

Turkey will extend its weekend curfews aimed at stemming the coronavirus outbreak with the next closure to be imposed 18-19 April. The coronavirus death toll in the country has reached 1,403, with a total of 65,111 confirmed cases.

“The weekend curfew imposed in our 30 major cities and Zonguldak province is one of the measures” necessary “fight against the epidemic” in “the coming period,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced following a three-hour virtual Cabinet meeting, before underscoring that “Our goal was to protect our millions of citizens who will be attracted by the beautiful weather at the weekend and fill the beaches of the streets, parks, picnic areas from the virus.”

“As part of the fight against the epidemic, we decided to continue the curfew on weekends as needed in the coming period,” stated Erdoğan, before emphasizing the restrictions will go into effect “from 24:00 o’clock on Friday, 17 April to 24:00 o’clock on Sunday, 19 April.”

Confusion over precise timing associated with the previous weekend curfew led to the resignation of Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who announced he would step down on Sunday 12 April after authorities’ decision to give two hours’ notice for a two-day curfew in Turkey’s main cities caused chaos as people rushed to the remaining open shops to stock up on supplies.

News of the Interior Minister’s sudden exit prompted a wave of support on social media for him.  Soylu is known for his hawkish stance on security and is popular with party supporters, leading Erdoğan to swiftly announce his Minister would stay in place.

Saying he “appreciated our Interior Minister’s sensitivity to the issue,” President Erdoğan rejected Soylu’s resignation, adding “although it was clearly stated that the curfew on Friday night is limited with only Saturday and Sunday, the problems experienced on that night does not eliminate this fact.” He then stressed that all necessary precautions will be taken to avoid a repetition of people who rushed to remaining open shops and bakeries this past weekend due to the timing of the announcement.

Analysts say the political fallout from Turkey’s rushed coronavirus lockdown at the weekend exposed tensions at the top of President Erdoğan’s AK Party. As a prominent member of the cabinet, Soylu is seen by some party members as a potential rival to the President’s influential son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, and view the weekend events through that prism.

“It is no secret now that there has been a struggle and some issues between Albayrak and Soylu for some time,” one AK Party official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Soylu’s … resignation was an explosion from all this build-up.”

By offering to take individual blame – even though the lockdown was approved by Erdoğan – and then winning a public endorsement from the President, Soylu has strengthened his own position, the official said.

The government has played down suggestions of division. “Our president has rejected our interior minister’s resignation … Nobody can axe our unity and solidarity,” said Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

Since being appointed Interior Minister four years ago, Soylu, 50, has led a crackdown in which tens of thousands of people have been detained on suspicion of links to a network accused of being behind a failed 2016 military coup. Turkey’s Western allies and human rights groups were alarmed by the purge, which they viewed as indiscriminate and disproportionate. Ankara responded that the actions were necessary response to security challenges it faced domestically as well as from across its borders with Syria and Iraq.

“Soylu’s relentless work and success in the battle against terrorism has been recognized by the people, the support base and the party,” said an AK Party official, adding that, “No matter what anyone says, he has power and that power was really consolidated with the resignation issue.”

Losing Soylu would have dealt a blow to the AK Party, said a second party official. He went on to describe Syolu as “one of the important centers of power within the party,” stressing that “The battle for power within the party has changed as of Sunday. But these have started becoming damaging images for the AK Party.”

The Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has ruled Turkey since 2002, has seen two of its founder members break away in the past year to establish rival parties, and any additional internal party dissent would pose greater political challenges to continued rule by Erdoğan. Even though he was re-elected in 2018, Erdoğan’s party suffered defeat in both Istanbul and Ankara municipal elections last year.

New presidential and parliamentary elections are not scheduled until 2023.

Other coronavirus updates issued by Erdoğan included announcement of the establishment of two new hospitals with a total of 350 beds for coronavirus patients in the country’s most populated city of Istanbul. With a population of around 16 million, Istanbul is now the epicenter of the pandemic in Turkey – where around 60% of cases have been detected.

Meanwhile, Turkish officials had warned the asylum seekers who had been camped out on the country’s border with Greece for over a month about the risks of spreading novel coronavirus if they continued to remain outdoors and crowded together.

With their hopes of crossing into Europe for a better life dashed, the migrants asked the provincial migration authorities in Turkey’s northwestern Edirne and to be relocated elsewhere in Turkey. They were later taken to available guesthouses on buses provided by the Edirne governor’s office.

As part of COVID-19 measures, the asylum seekers will be sent to appropriate locations once the quarantine period has ended.

In related developments, the highest European Union court ruled on 2 April that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had broken the law by refusing to host refugees to help ease the burden on southern states such as Greece and Italy after a surge in migrant arrivals from 2015.

At the time, leaders in each of the states cited national security concerns as the reason for the refusal to accept any refugees or migrants who had fled the Middle East and North Africa. Italy and Greece complained vehemently over a lack of European solidarity as they struggled to cope with mass arrivals, which overwhelmed their security and welfare systems.

Germany also criticized the eastern European nations for refusing to help even though they continued to benefit from generous EU financial aid. Nevertheless, the three guilty states face no immediate penalty.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen called the ruling “significant,” saying that “all member states were required to participate in a temporary relocation scheme. Hungary, Poland and Czechia did not and today the court found that, as a consequence, they did not fulfil their obligations. This ruling is important. It is referring to the past – but it will give us guidance to the future.”

Since 2015 the EU has cracked down on immigration, fortified external borders and offered increased support to countries including Turkey to help prevent migrants from heading to Europe.

Turkish President Erdoğan has faced accusations of trying to blackmail the EU after he declared on 28 February that his nation would no longer restrain migrants on its territory. Tens of thousands of migrants housed on Turkish soil then rushed to border crossings in attempts to infiltrate Europe, particularly through Greece. The EU condemned Erdoğan’s move as a violation of his 2016 deal with Brussels in which Turkey received EU aid in exchange for housing an estimated 3.6 million mostly-Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile the fragile ceasefire in neighboring Syria’s Idlib region, that was reached between Turkish President Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last month, appears to be holding. The Russian state-operated domestic RIA Novosti news agency cited the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria as reporting today that Kremlin forces held its fourth joint patrol with Turkey in Idlib, which is home to the last bastion of resistance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In accordance with Ankara and Moscow’s efforts to uphold the truce in the region, the patrol also covered the strategic M4 highway which links the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Latakia.