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Although President Erdoğan always makes a point about the opposition whenever he talks about COVID-19 measures, the situation of the economy and the polls paint a different picture. There remains one option. (Photo: Presidency)

From the cabinet meeting on May 4, President Tayyip Erdoğan made statements that could be considered as a turning point in the fight against the Covid-19 outbreak. Firstly, he said that the “Normalization Plan” will be spread out to the months of May, June, and July; not all at once. He expressed that if the measures are not followed or if the disease becomes severe again, tougher measures will be implemented. Because the relaxation of the measures would not mean that the disease has ended and that everything would go back to normal. Although, who will explain this to the people of Istanbul, where the traffic was so jammed that accidents occurred just yesterday? It’s unclear. But as expected, citizens over 65 were at last given the right to go out onto the streets for 4 hours on the weekend, while others would stay at home. For those under the age of 20, 4 hours on weekdays. In this regard, we see that the advices of Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca and the Science Advisory Board have been taken into account about keeping up the protective measure at least until May 28. The reason behind the 4-hour weekday freedom granted to those under 20 may be that the schools will not be open in June either. And Erdoğan has only announced exam dates and the calendars for universities, anyway.

It would either be malls or schools

This wasn’t just the case in Turkey. Across the world, too, scientific circles have been stressing that opening businesses and schools at the same time wasn’t a good idea during the normalization process. It was said that commercial and educational activities, both currently high risk, would put too great a burden on the healthcare system. The educators wanted the schools re-opened in June so they could save this education year to a certain extent. The world of commerce, on the other hand, wanted to open the shops, especially the shopping malls, as soon as possible. And that’s what happened; they’ll be opened on May 11. And it’s not only the shopping malls. Barbers and hairdressers, environments by definition open to close bodily contact, are also set to be opened on this date. Erdoğan said that the shops will work at half-capacity and if they should not follow the rules, stricter measures will come. Nevertheless, this is a risky step. It’s a risky step even though there is indeed a need for normalization. For schools, on the other hand, no date has yet been announced. Minister of National Education Ziya Selçuk still talks about the June 1 option. These new measures announced to give the impression that the government has adopted the “herd immunity” option.

Shifting to partisan rhetoric, again

Right after he made these detailed announcements, Erdoğan, somehow, once again, brought the subject to the centre-left opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “We know them well from the Single Party period”, he said, believing it has some sort of connotation for the younger generations. “They are fascists”, he added. And then the gloves were off.
Truth be told, Erdoğan is using all the advantages of the Presidential Government System all at once. The Parliamentary Group Meetings of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were always broadcasted live uninterruptedly on TV. But before the epidemic, at least, citizens were not watching and could change the channel or turn the TV off if they wished to. This could also be seen from the plummeting ratings of the channels that broadcasted those meetings. However now, the citizens who turn on these channels to watch the President give vital information about the measures against the epidemic, suddenly find themselves watching the AKP leader.
The question to ask here is: why? What is Erdoğan trying to do? Is he hoping to squeeze out an election victory from making Turkey appear more successful than some other countries, particularly in the West in the fight against the new coronavirus? Is he plotting to go for an election and win when no one would be convinced that the economy is doing fine in it its current state? Is this the plan underlying this hardening political and ideological discourse?

Polls state the opposite

Frankly, the surveys announced one after the other is not the kind that would encourage Erdoğan.
For example, according to a recent survey conducted by the Avrasya research company, if the election is held today, AKP’s votes would be at 34 percent, even after the undecided votes are evenly distributed. There is no upward movement in AKP votes in the last 20 months since 24 June 2018 general elections. According to those results, the estimated vote of Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is 8.9%; that is below the 10 percent threshold. In other words, if Erdogan and Bahçeli were to enter the next election in alliance again, they could merely get 43 percent of the votes. Far below the necessary 50 percent. Unless Ahmet Davutoğlu’s new Future Party (FP) and Ali Babacan’s Deva Party (having splitted from Erdogan’s AKP) join in on the Erdoğan-Bahçeli alliance their respective 2,5 percent of votes each, the 50+1 percent formula might not work in the first round of the election. This means that the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with its 11% vote forecast will play a key role; since the alliance of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP with 28 plus percent and Meral Akşener’s centre-right Good Party (IYI) with 11 plus percent would be below the 50 percent either.
And that’s why Bekir Ağırdır, head of the KONDA Research company, who spoke to Murat Sabuncu of T24, said that Erdoğan doesn’t see the possibility of going for an early election “unless the election system changes.” Especially given the current state of the economy. Just as unemployment has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels due to COVID-19, when printing money outright is seen as the only hope for covering existing debt despite current inflation rates, and just as the USD has exceeded 7 liras.

To stop the eroding AKP base?

If there is no right-risk, snap election move in his mind, there only remains one single reason for Erdoğan to amp up the political discourse at this moment. And that would be to stop the current erosion taking place within his voter base.
According to MetroPoll research company, Erdogan’s job approval had increased by 14 percent the previous month (between end of February and end of March), reaching 55.8 percent. This was in line with a global trend. At times of disasters such as war, famine, and epidemics, people tend to feel the need to trust their leaders whether they like them or not. However, as the crisis was brought under control, questions that were not asked during the crisis began to emerge. And this was expected to trigger a drop in the support.
The MetroPoll survey confirms this. Erdoğan’s task approval seems to have failed to 52 percent with a 3.8 percent decline from the end of March to the end of April. And that’s despite a slight drop in the percentage of those who didn’t approve. And despite the perception that the spread of the Covid-19 disease was beginning to get under control in recent weeks.
Consider that decline that has already started to show itself with the AKP votes not moving up for a long time… Erdogan may simply be trying to preserve the support rate that increased during the COVID-19 crisis at that same level. He might be trying to rekindle the extinguishing support within the AKP voter base by exacerbating the anti-CHP discourse. If he’s not considering a snap or early election considering the economy’s current state, there seems to be no other explanation for this hardening political discourse other than trying to stop the erosion within his voter base.
Of course, if Bahçeli asks for an early election, that’s another story. What Bahçeli wants, Bahçeli gets.