Erdogan under fire for packed congress despite virus surge

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came under criticism Wednesday for holding his party’s congress inside a packed sports complex amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

Thousands of ruling party supporters filled the stands of the 10,400-capacity complex in Ankara — despite the Turkish government’s social distancing rules. Videos posted on social media purported to show busloads of ruling party supporters traveling to the capital to attend the congress, many without masks. Wearing masks in public spaces is mandatory in Turkey.

Erdogan spoke for nearly two hours at the event, presenting his vision for when the country marks the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023, when the country is also scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections. He said he cut remarks short in order not to expose congress participants to the virus.

Murat Emir, a physician and lawmaker from Turkey’s main opposition party, described the scenes from the party congress as “shameful,” writing on Twitter that the event showed disregard for “the health workers who work day and night in the battle against the pandemic.”

Former Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, a member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, maintained that delegates were tested for the coronavirus before attending the congress.

Erdogan has been criticized for holding similarly crowded local party congresses across the country in past weeks despite the pandemic. During one such event, he boasted about the size of the crowd.

Turkey reported close to 30,000 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, weeks after the government eased restrictions in dozens of provinces under a so-called “controlled normalization” program. The country also reported 146 deaths in the past 24 hours.

On March 1, the government divided Turkey’s provinces into four risk categories and allowed restaurants and cafes to reopen in low, medium and high-risk areas. Weekend lockdowns were also eased in those provinces, although nighttime curfews introduced in late November remain in place across Turkey.

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