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Erdogan rejects Turkish minister's resignation over Covid-19 lockdown panic

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks during a news conference for foreign media correspondents in Istanbul, Turkey, August 21, 2019.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu speaks during a news conference for foreign media correspondents in Istanbul, Turkey, August 21, 2019. © Ahmet Bolat/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday refused the resignation of his interior minister over his handling of an abrupt nationwide lockdown that led to panic buying.

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Authorities declared the 48-hour curfew in dozens of cities shortly before 10 pm on Friday, giving millions of people just two hours' notice and prompting a wave of desperate last-minute buying.

"The incidents that occurred ahead of the implementation of the curfew were not befitting the perfect management of the outbreak," Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said in statement on Twitter in which he said he was resigning.

Erdogan, however, judged it was not "appropriate" for Soylu to resign and the minister would continue in his position, the presidency said shortly afterwards.

Reporting from the capital, Ankara, FRANCE 24’s Turkey correspondent Jasper Mortimer noted that offers of resignation by Turkish cabinet ministers are very rare and could explain Erdogan’s prompt rejection of Soylu’s offer. “In Turkey, the attitude is ‘Stand fast. Resignation shows government failure, therefore don’t resign.’ You can see that stand fast mentality in Erdogan refusing to accept the resignation,” said Mortimer.

Soylu's statement came just before the end of the weekend lockdown in 31 provinces across Turkey, including its largest city and commercial hub Istanbul, home to 16 million residents.

The resignation offer came as a shock to Turkish political circles. “Soylu is the second-most powerful minister in the cabinet after the president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who is the finance minister,” explained Mortimer.

“Soylu is a power in his own right and is seen as a possible successor to Erdogan. So, if he had stepped down it would have been a blow to the ruling party. Soylu is also an arch champion of Erdogan’s crackdown on dissenters, on opposition parties, the Kurds and so on. So if he had stepped down, Turkish liberals would have been happy to see the back of him,” he said. 

‘Threat to public health’

The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said the way the lockdown was announced had undermined efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Turkey, which has registered 50,000 cases.

"A decision that needs to be taken for public health became a threat to public health due to lack of planning," CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak said. "The sacrifice of people self isolating for days has been wasted."

More than 1,100 people have died of Covid-19 in Turkey, many of them in Istanbul where CHP Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said municipal authorities had no advance warning of the move. "Decisions taken without common sense and cooperation will only cause confusion and panic," he said.

Turkey's lira fell more than one percent to 6.800 against the US dollar after Soylu's statement. It traded at 6.741 at 2107 GMT.

The weekend lockdown came on top of existing curbs under which people under the age of 20 and over 65 have been told to stay at home.

Ankara has also halted all flights, restricted domestic travel, closed schools, bars and cafes, and suspended mass prayers. But people have still been going to work to sustain economic activity.

Transport minister Mehmet Cahit Turhan was removed two weeks ago after the ministry drew criticism for holding a tender amid the outbreak to prepare to build a huge canal on the edge of Istanbul. 

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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