By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan has evoked Turkey’s war of independence in calls for unity against the coronavirus, but opposition parties say their exclusion from fund-raising efforts and the detention of government critics is instead fuelling division.
The government’s initial response to the outbreak appeared to have public support. A survey by pollster Metropoll on Wednesday showed a strong rise in Erdogan’s approval rating to 55.8% in March, when the first cases emerged in Turkey.
But more than 200 people have been arrested for social media posts on the pandemic and Erdogan, who obtained sweeping new powers in a 2018 switch to a presidential system, has blocked opposition aid campaigns, saying only the state can raise funds.
“The lack of a presidency that embraces all its citizens and unites them is felt more than ever today,” Faik Oztrak, a spokesman for the main opposition CHP, told reporters this week.
Erdogan’s AK Party, in power since 2002, was putting its own interests first “even during an extraordinary pandemic”, he said, and failing to provide sufficient financial support for millions impacted by the outbreak.
The AK Party has strongly dismissed such criticism, saying it aims to belittle the country’s achievements.
“A result where everybody wins, where Turkey comes out of crises successfully, is always a nightmare scenario for this sick mentality,” AKP spokesman Omer Celik said on Tuesday.
The government’s measures, he said, were aimed at building national solidarity.
Ankara initially announced a $15 billion economic package and the government has offered to pay 60% of the wages of those whose work has been hit by the crisis. It also plans legislation temporarily banning layoffs to curb an expected jump in unemployment, two senior officials told Reuters on Thursday.
The government has raised 1.4 billion lira ($207 million) for those facing hardship through a “National Solidarity Campaign”. Around 50 million has been raised in small donations via SMS while state bodies and banks made the largest contributions, with the central bank donating 100 million lira.
But the CHP has criticised Erdogan for only involving mayors from the AKP in fund-raising efforts despite his calls for solidarity. A money-raising campaign launched by Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a CHP member, was declared illegal.
Former Erdogan ally and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who formed his own Future Party in December, said the fundraising campaign was a waste of time. “There can be nothing more senseless than state institutions taking part in an aid campaign. You’re just taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other,” he said.
Teachers union Egitim-Sen said it had received information that teachers were pressed to contribute.
The spread of COVID-19 in Turkey has accelerated in recent days, with more than 4,000 new cases confirmed on Wednesday and the death toll rising to 812.
Criticism of Ankara’s response to the pandemic has faced scrutiny. The Interior Ministry says it has investigated nearly 4,000 social media accounts for “provocative” coronavirus posts, identifying 616 suspects and detaining 229 of them.
Among those facing investigation is a prominent TV anchor who questioned on Twitter whether the government would raid depositors’ bank accounts after Erdogan referred to a war-time tax imposed 100 years ago.
The tax law, which requisitioned vehicles, goods and weapons during the country’s war of independence in 1921, was cited by Erdogan as an example of the sacrifice and solidarity that the nation had shown in the past.
Erdogan’s lawyer called for prosecutors to investigate the presenter for insulting the president.
The Interior Ministry said the social media criticism was driven by Kurdish militants and people linked to a network the government says was behind a 2016 coup attempt.
Mithat Sancar, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said the government needed to involve all sections of society to win people over.
“The government in Turkey thinks it can manage this outbreak with fines, detentions and donation campaigns,” Sancar told the T24 news website. “They know these methods won’t work.”
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and William Maclean)