The problem with strongman rulers is that the illusion of strength and stability they bring is fleeting. When dictators eviscerate checks-and-balances, they become the only glue holding society together.
Consider Turkey: Under the grasp of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country has just a thin façade of stability. Erdogan’s purges have decimated the army and security forces, neither of which retain the power nor competence of decades past. The blows to judicial independence will likewise be hard to repair. Nor is it clear that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the political party Erdogan founded, will be sufficient to stabilize the country once Erdogan is gone. In recent years, Erdogan has promoted family members such as son Bilal and son-in-law Berat Albayrak at the expense of longtime aides and party leaders like Abdullah Gul and Ahmet Davutoglu. Regardless, with the exception of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his Republican Peoples Party (CHP), no Turkish political party which has managed alone to lead the country has survived the death of its charismatic leader. Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party, for example, dissolved after his execution and Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party faded away to nothing after his fatal heart attack.
Is Erdogan healthy?
This brings us back to Erdogan. Throughout his nearly 14-year-rule, Erdogan has suffered a number of health scares. In one incident a decade ago, it took his bodyguards nearly 10 minutes to extract him after he passed out, locked inside his bullet-proof car. Five years ago, a leaked email suggested that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan had cancer and had just two years to live. While he did indeed have cancer, he beat the prognosis. And, earlier this summer, Erdogan fainted while at prayers. Such episodes don’t necessarily spell doom. Erdogan is 63-years-old, younger than Turkey’s opposition leaders and also younger than many of Turkey’s previous leaders.
Still, in recent weeks the same sources who correctly tipped me off several months before it occurred that a coup might be in the works have suggested that Erdogan’s cancer is back and that it has spread. A caveat: It’s always dangerous to speculate on the health of dictators. In already opaque societies, leaders’ health is one of the most closely guarded secrets. There can be a ridiculous quality to the coverage: Consider the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. For three decades, analysts predicted his imminent demise. When he finally died in 2000, those same analysts quipped they were right all along. I have not, of course, talked to Erdogan’s doctors and have no way of knowing whether the rumors are true other than noting my sources have a record of being more right than wrong. Regardless, the mortality of dictators should not be a taboo subject, at least when it comes to speculating about what comes next.
Will Erdogan’s successor emerge from family or party?
This brings us back to Erdogan. What happens when Turkey’s strongman dies, assuming he is not first removed from power by other means? It is unlikely that his son or son-in-law will on their own maintain enough stature with the military and more senior officials that they can successfully grab the reins of power, even if they do have access to some of the money that Erdogan has embezzled over the course of his career. In other words, Bilal and Berat are more Gamal Mubarak or Saif Qadhafi than they are Bashar al-Assad.
Could AKP veterans take the helm? Here, there are two main possibilities. Former President Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Gül is well-liked within the party, and has managed to evade Erdogan’s crackdown on those with ties to exiled theologian Fethullah Gülen, perhaps because he has remained so quiet in retirement. Gül, however, is personally reticent and has long been risk adverse. It is unclear whether he would be able to wield a strong enough hand to pick up the pieces and marginalize competitors in the scramble which will follow Erdogan’s death.
Babacan, meanwhile, has managed to keep himself relatively clean amidst the corruption that has marked the Erdogan years, and he has also avoided association with Erdogan’s dictatorial excesses. It’s unlikely, however, that either Gül or Babacan could muster over 30% of a post-Erdogan vote which, even with AKP cheating, likely will not be sufficient to consolidate control.
Could an oppositionist win control?
That brings us to those outside the party. Erdogan seems to have outmaneuvered former Maoist and Turkish nationalist Dogu Perincek. Russian President Vladimir Putin undercut his former ally when he agreed to work with Erdogan rather than use Perincek against him. While Perincek still has support among senior military officials, Erdogan’s military counselor and Islamist Adnan Tanriverdi has brought muscle into the mix with SADAT, which may be small but is reminiscent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, at least in its early years. Simply put, with every passing day, Tanriverdi and SADAT become stronger and Perincek’s influence fades. Tanriverdi himself does not have political aspirations, but he could wield influence, depending where he directs SADAT’s muscle.
Other established political leaders may not win the helm. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli was never charismatic and always underperformed at elections, costing the MHP anywhere from five to eight percentage points. Add into this his recent moves to become Erdogan’s quisling, and he has sealed the MHP’s irrelevance. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu also lacks charisma and erred in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt by throwing blanket support behind Erdogan who, frankly, may have been more involved in the coup than he acknowledges. Still, Kilicdaroglu’s summer 2017 “March for Justice” was a success. It shook Erdogan by showing just how much appetite there is in Turkey for a return to rule-of-law. To be fair, if Kilicdaroglu can stay out of prison, he may prefer to remain party boss rather than president, enabling a talented CHP official like Ilhan Kesici, who has both centrist and religious credentials, to rise to the challenge.
By far, the most dynamic leader in Turkey today is Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the left-of-center and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Under his leadership, the HDP has broadened its appeal beyond just Turkey’s Kurds, but the HDP will never win a majority or even more than a quarter of the votes. The fact that Erdogan managed to imprison Demirtas without facing serious protests or political push back, however, underscores just how weak collectively the opposition is.
So what next?
Few policymakers, academics, or outside analysts anymore pretend that Erdogan is anything but an autocrat. Some temper criticism for fear of losing business or access, while others more inclined to ignore Erdogan’s behavior say that, despite his foibles, Turkey is simply too important from which to walk away. Either way, however, it behooves American policymakers to consider what may happen in Turkey the day after Erdogan’s death, especially if that day comes sooner than many diplomats assume.
At the very minimum, there will be a political scramble. Erdogan’s strongman cachet may not be enough to assure a smooth transition, all the more so because he will not risk the potential challenge which might occur should he designate a successor. Further, given the divisions which Erdogan has exacerbated but suppressed, the weeks and months after Erdogan’s death might be marked by violent score-settling. Turks will demand their loved one be freed from Turkey’s political prisons to resume their rightful place in society, and many Turks will demand the return of property looted from them under the guise of AKP-dominated technocratic and judicial bodies. Even if a new leadership emerges relatively peacefully, it will be hard for a coalition government still working out its inner-workings to right the ship effectively.
Alas, as cancer may eat away at a seemingly healthy patient, years of Erdoganism have done damage that may be irreparable to Turkey’s future. New leadership may emerge, but it will be no miracle cure for what Erdogan has wrought.