The question of Erdogan’s succession – Selim Koru / FPRI

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is highly unlikely to serve as president past 2028. During his last term, the question of his succession will grow in importance. Rather than looking for the “next Erdoğan” it is important to understand that Erdoğan’s successor, whoever it is, will be inheriting an entirely new state structure than the one Erdoğan assumed when he came to power in 2003. By Selim Koru in Foreign Policy Research Institute on june 5, 2023.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has won a second and final presidential term. He now has a mandate to govern until 2028, when he will be at the end of his constitutionally allotted three terms. Being 69 years old and appearing more lethargic every year, it is increasingly unlikely that he will continue as president beyond that time. This means that the opposition has lost what is likely their last opportunity to defeat Erdoğan at the ballot box. 

Erdoğan’s last term will introduce a new problem to Turkish politics: succession. Who, after all, can do what Erdoğan does? Consider for a moment how complicated a question this is. Erdoğan isn’t just the president and the chairman of the AK Party, he is effectively the leader of several parties under the “Cumhur” coalition in parliament. The people surrounding him, including the cabinet, institution heads, as well as business leaders, have been serving him for decades, and owe allegiance to him personally. Tens of millions of his supporters refer to Erdoğan as “reis”’ meaning “leader,” and feel like they have a personal bond to him. Abroad, there are hundreds of millions of people who look at Erdoğan with admiration and respect. All this is a textbook case of what Max Weber would call charismatic authority. It is power bundled up in the bone and sinew of a rapidly aging man. Can it be passed on? And if so, how? 

I can see two arguments about what happens after Erdoğan is no longer in power: Turkey will return to a structure in which its two halves alternate in governing the country, or Erdoğan’s block will generate a new leader who continues his hegemony.

The first argument states that after Erdoğan, Turkey will revert to some kind of democratic normal. This is especially popular among opposition circles. Erdoğan, the thinking here goes, has been an unusually strong leader, and that once he’s gone, his successor will not be able to hold the reigns quite the way he does. Erdoğan’s magic, they point out, only works when he is on the ballot. In the national elections in June 2015, and in the municipal elections of 2019, Erdoğan wasn’t on the ballot. His surrogates were, and they lost. Erdoğanism without Erdoğan, this thinking goes, is not as compelling to voters as the man himself. So here, Erdoğan is like the keystone at the apex of a stone arch. Pull him out, and the whole thing collapses.

The counterargument is that Erdoğan doesn’t really need to be replaced. He may have been crucial to build the “New Turkey” regime, but once it’s built, the structure can continue with a new “reis.” Erdoğan’s uniqueness isn’t in his ability to manage the system, but his ability to build it out of “Old Turkey’s” quasi-democratic structure. Yes, he is an unusually skilled leader, but perhaps other people can rise to similar levels if they find themselves in his seat. “The crowned head grows wise” a Turkish saying goes. Once someone else becomes reis, his office is protected by the immense powers of the state – the security apparatus, welfare system, and media monopoly could make a reis out of even a mediocre operator. The culture then moves to create a cult of personality around the new figure, probably based on his relationship with the original. 

It’s not hard to imagine. Erdoğan, after all, expanded his political base in the 2000s and 2010s. His last few campaigns were less impressive, and merely managed to hold on to his slim majority. Perhaps that can be replicated under a new reis. It’s a combination of very strong party structure on the ground, welfare provisions, media dominance and lots of money greasing the wheels. That machinery could be maintained.

I think the second argument works best if Erdoğan succeeds in publicly tipping someone as his successor before he departs. That way he can prevent a potentially damaging fight after he’s gone. The person wouldn’t necessarily be a member of cabinet or a big businessman – it could be someone with a history in the AK Party. Erdoğan is himself an outsider to the state, a creature of Turkey’s party-political “teşkilat” (organization) culture rather than officialdom. People from that world often have a more intuitive understanding of politics than those reared in the safety of a bureaucratic paycheck. Bureaucratic types (like Hakan Fidan, who has just assumed the position of Foreign Minister after a decade running Turkey’s intelligence service) might imagine that the ready-made machinery could do the political work for them, but it would be a risky endeavor. Turkey’s leader will still need to get elected.

Many leaders also choose to anoint people from their family. In this, Erdoğan isn’t very lucky. His older son Burak Erdoğan has been hidden away from the public from an early age, possibly due to mental health issues. His younger son Bilal Erdoğan heads powerful non-governmental organizations attached to the family, but isn’t considered prime leadership material. His older son-in-law Berat Albayrak served as minister of energy and finance, and grew so reviled during his tenure that he had to step down in a dramatic fashion. He maintains great institutional power, but can no longer afford to be in the limelight. The younger son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar is a highly accomplished developer of military technology, but has never been exposed to the heat of daily politics. It is doubtful that he would be able to survive it for long. Erdoğan’s successor is most likely to succeed if he comes from outside of his family and cabinet.

To sum up, it would be grossly reductive to say that the “New Turkey” regime will only live as long as its founder. Its emotional and institutional reach goes far beyond Erdoğan’s charisma. It could well outlive him, especially if the president himself designates a strong successor.

By Selim Koru in Foreign Policy Research Institute on june 5, 2023.

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