By Abraham Thicke
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led his country for nearly 15 years, first as Prime Minister and latterly as president. During this time, Turkey’s economy has burgeoned, with millions enjoying benefits that eluded most Turks during the last century.
But Erdoğan, despite early signs to the contrary, has done nothing to enhance the quality of Turkey’s always precarious democracy. Indeed, the Turkish Republic is currently more authoritarian than at any time since the death of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The West, for all its talk of democracy, does not appear too concerned about the lack of democratic progress. What concerns the West more is, first, that Turkey is no longer a reliable ally and, second, the possibility of serious instability in Turkey. As painful experiences in places such as Iraq demonstrate, a hostile though stable state is no less of a threat to Western interests than a state destabilized by attempts to impose democracy.
It is, therefore, unlikely any serious external attempt will be made to democratize Turkey. It is also evident that Erdoğan, who directly controls all the main levers of power, is no longer interested in promoting democracy. The prospects of a democratic revival in Turkey whilst Erdoğan remains in power are remote.
The best that can be hoped for, in the short to medium term, is that Turkey can maintain stability. But Erdoğan might, at any time, get consumed by one of the many fires he has set or which burn around him, taking the regime and perhaps the country with him. One way this could happen involves conflicts akin to those in Syria and Iraq breaking out in Turkey.
Another hypothetical scenario, one that has received less attention, involves Erdoğan managing both to remain in power and provide some semblance of stability until either he dies or becomes incapacitated. Erdoğan’s age and record of health scares, not to mention his deep entrenchment in power, his enduring popularity and a track record of riding out storms, make this entirely possible.
What would happen next?
The rocky prospects of a succession
One of the hallmarks of Turkey’s current brand of authoritarianism is Erdoğan’s personality cult. Much like Ataturk before him, Erdoğan is everywhere. His face stares out from innumerable billboards. His words and actions, however trivial, are the subject of endless headlines and speculation.
When he dies an enormous space will open up in Turkey.
In Ataturk’s case, death was no impediment to continued participation in political life. His personality cult looms over Turkey to this day. Erdoğan no doubt envisages an afterlife much like Ataturk’s. To achieve this he needs a surrogate, a physical proxy to sit on the seat and keep his spirit warm.
However, any succession might not be as smooth as that Ataturk enjoyed. To start with, the prolonged decline in Ataturk’s heath allowed ample time to plan for İsmet İnonu’s takeover.
İnonu, it might also be added, had years of high level political experience before taking over. The Erdoğan regime is a revolving door, with the support cast changing just as rapidly as Erdoğan’s whims. So besides Erdoğan, precious few in positions of power appear to have the depth of experience required for such a role.
In addition, the Turkish regime’s recent history indicates an ever decreasing level of competence. It may therefore prove difficult to plan effectively for an issue as complex, delicate and uncertain as that under consideration.
There has been speculation that Erdoğan is grooming his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, for the role. Given his status, Albayrak would be a logical choice; likely to prioritize protecting Erdoğan’s legacy as well as the assets and influence of family members. Albayrak’s promotion through the ranks of the AKP to ministerial level has also been rapid. However, Erdoğan has yet to make any public pronouncement on the topic, and may not do so until he feels the end is drawing nigh for fear of undermining his own authority. Albayrak, meanwhile, is a largely unknown quantity.
Senior figures in the regime have their hands more or less tied. Given prevailing conditions in Turkey, any plans for an orderly succession that fail to prioritize the interests of Erdoğan and his immediate circle, are likely to be viewed as treasonous.
Were Erdoğan not to designate a successor, a power struggle may well break out within the regime. Infighting may well break out even if he does nominate a successor.
In states with strong institutions the effects of infighting might be confined to the ruling party/regime. But Turkey, with its institutions gutted and shorn of independence and initiative, has few mechanisms to pick-up the slack and shield the country from the effects of fraternal strife.
Even should any succession proceed smoothly, whoever takes over will inherit a can of worms. If current trends are anything to go by, this will involve a deeply polarized and fragmenting society, international isolation and a dangerous neighbourhood. Erdoğan has, thus far, managed to keep the lid on things, but has also increased the pressure inside. Dealing with this would be difficult for any government, but for a successor wedded to preserving the cult of Erdoğan, it will be like trying to square a circle. Continuing as before will be equally difficult: what that holds things together is the living Erdoğan’s force of personality. Lightning does not often strike twice.
Given the above, Turkey seems primed for difficulties if the regime outlives its presiding genius. This will come as no surprise to those who grasp the extent to which Erdoğan has been allowed to shape the regime in his image. Every leading figure occupies their position only because they have nailed their colors to Erdoğan mast. It will not be easy to prise out those nails and attach them to another mast. Nor will it be easy for a ship charting stormy waters with only one mast, and that of a unique shape, to raise another in its place.
It is highly unlikely that Turkey’s current course towards increasing authoritarianism and international isolation will be reversed while Erdoğan remains in power. Consequently discussions about an Erdoğan regime that touch on issues of democracy and the reforming of jaded alliances seem past their sell by date. More pressing are debates about the potential consequences of the regime’s numerous acts of self-harm. Indeed, for all its bellicose bluster, the most serious damage the regime inflicts on other nations stems from just such acts. These threaten Turkey’s stability and an unstable Turkey is in few parties’ interests.
One potential flashpoint involves issues of succession. These too have the potential to undermine Turkey’s stability. Thus, in evaluating the opportunities such a scenario presents, even the regime’s many critics should bear in mind the considerable dangers ― an authoritarian though relatively prosperous Turkey cannot be equated with a failed state.
That matters relating to the succession have received little attention is unsurprising given Erdoğan’s towering presence and the uncertainty surrounding the date at which he will take his leave.
But it could be tomorrow.
Bring up the bodies!