The saga of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s controversial president, continues. Coming from humble beginnings, the former mayor of Istanbul rose to prominence in Turkish politics at a time when the country was going through one of its most challenging economic and political crises. In 2002, Erdogan’s newly-formed Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) scored a stunning electoral victory and gained the majority of the seats in the parliament. During the course of the last 14 years, Erdogan gradually and systematically consolidated his political power.
One thing he did not have, until July 15, that is, was an act of heroism, ideally accompanied by a “miracle.” On July 15, Erdogan stared into the eyes of Turkey’s first “hard” coup attempt in 36 years. The coup plotters aimed to assassinate Erdogan and most likely his family. If they had been successful, Turkey would have – most likely – woken up to a military dictatorship or full-blown civil war. However, Erdogan was saved by a “miracle,” escaping his assassins by mere minutes. Therein came Erdogan’s act of heroism: aware that there were rebel F-16s in the air and unsure of their numbers as well as location, he took his plane to Istanbul, calling Turkish citizens to the streets to stall the coup plotters over an aide’s smartphone. In the end, under the leadership of Erdogan, the people said “no” to a coup attempt, a first in the history of the Republic of Turkey.
As a result, Erdogan’s cult of personality has reached new heights: “reis” (“chief”) has now become his quasi-formal moniker. And the reis is now on the brink of establishing a “new” Turkey: Erdogan’s Turkey.
Erdogan has only one more step to take before finalizing his project of building a new regime: a constitutional change that will transfer the executive powers to the person of the president. According to the present constitution, the Turkish president holds more of a non-partisan, ceremonial role with negligible veto powers. Not in Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan has already bent and ignored what the constitution prescribes for the role of the president in Turkish politics. This, however, is not enough for Erdogan. He wants absolute power and is getting ready to take the next step.
An important breaking point came with the sacking of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a longtime confidante of Erdogan and the chief architect of Turkey’s “active” foreign policy (which is sometimes referred to as neo-Ottomanism). Davutoglu reportedly disagreed with Erdogan over the “pace” of the constitutional change, if not necessarily its content. Erdogan “convinced” him to resign silently. Davutoglu was then replaced by Binali Yildirim, who is unanimously accepted to be little more than an old party hand, the very picture of a “yes man” who will follow the president’s orders, no questions asked. Yildirim’s performance during the coup attempt and its aftermath proved that he is also a steady and loyal hand in times of crisis. He can never be a “headliner,” a leader who will rule the AKP and Turkey all by himself.
The coup attempt failed, which is most certainly a much more desirable outcome than the alternative. However, Turkey’s problems remain. Turkey is still facing a multi-faceted political crisis that involves numerous challenges ranging from the re-emergence of the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. The coup attempt appears to have mitigated the polarization of the country between AKP’s supporters and its secular opponents, but it is very likely that the tensions will return, probably with a vengeance.
Now that Erdogan is about to finalize his project of transforming the Turkish political landscape and remake it in his image in the midst of a chronic political crisis, what’s next?
The answer has a lot to do with the silent removal of Davutoglu, which, according to some critiques of Erdogan, constituted no less than a “palace coup.” Put simply, Davutoglu’s removal suggests that Erdogan is not interested in a “second man” or grooming a successor. That he also liquidated one of his closest associates without a second thought when he appeared to voice a slight disagreement implies that Erdogan will not tolerate anyone who will step out of the path he draws. The end result is a political system with no mechanism left for succession. The question then becomes: What happens when Erdogan steps down, either voluntarily or due to an unforeseen development such as a health problem?
There are two answers. First, and more likely, Erdogan will end up creating a dynasty. If this happens, he will make sure a trusted and capable family member replaces him down the road. As of now, there are three candidates: Erdogan’s American-educated daughter Sumeyye Erdogan and his two sons-in-law: Berat Albayrak and Selcuk Bayraktar. Turning the remnants of Turkish democracy into a dynasty will prove to be controversial, even in the eyes of Erdogan’s long-term followers. But, given time, Erdogan can most probably make it work.
The second option would involve Erdogan either choosing not to select an heir or failing to groom one on time. Under such circumstances, Erdogan’s strength – that he has been able to concentrate political powers in his own hands – will likely work against him. In the absence of a viable successor, any sign of weakness or incompetence that will reveal itself through a health problem will likely create internal instability within his party and may open the gates for the very political system Erdogan has been building to collapse.
Regardless of which option Erdogan picks, Turkish democracy’s future looks increasingly bleak. If Erdogan ends up institutionalizing his dynasty, the country will slide into a “sultanate,” for lack of a better term. If, on the other hand, Erdogan fails to groom a successor on time, his regime’s survival will depend on his very mental and physical health. We cannot know what would await Turkey on the “other side” in the aftermath of Erdogan regime’s collapse, but with an increasingly divided society and boiling tensions, there is little room for optimism.
Of course, there is a third alternative: AKP’s internal democracy may prevail over Erdogan’s iron will and eventually set the stage for a much more democratic and smoother succession. However, Erdogan’s elevation to almost demi-god status in the aftermath of the coup attempt makes such an outcome increasingly unlikely.
The Dynastic Solution: The House of Erdogan Rises?
As economist Mancur Olson argued, dynastic succession mechanisms can have benefits for both the ruler and the ruled. For the ruler, the benefits are obvious: the “king” (or, reis, for that matter) can expect where the potential challenges to his claims over the throne can come from and act accordingly. The ruled, in this context, benefit from predictability, defined in terms of stability through the succession period. The logic is simple: If anyone can be the next king once the king dies, the competition over the throne can become fierce, which would trigger uncertainty and instability. On the other hand, if everyone agrees who is next in line to take over the throne, the transition from one ruler to another will be much smoother.
A functioning democracy takes care of the uncertainty dimension both for the leader and citizens. The leader understands that she is not destined to stay in office until the end of her days and has little to fear about her post-tenure fate. The citizens also understand that fair elections, transparent and democratic party politics, and rule of law collectively make sure that successions are not mired with instability.
Turkey under Erdogan, in this sense, looks more like a kingdom without clear succession mechanisms than a functioning democracy. True, Erdogan’s AKP came to power as a result of elections. He and his party are very popular, even more so now in the aftermath of the coup than before. Erdogan stood up against the coup plotters not only to ensure his political [and biological] survival, but also to save Turkey from a military dictatorship or civil war. However, his relentless reliance on a combination of the tyranny of the majority, populism, and a cult of personality raises many questions about the long-term health of Turkish political culture. When coupled with his tendency to bend rule of law and abhor any checks and balances on his power, Erdogan’s past record suggests that Turkey is becoming a “one-man” regime. Having made many enemies on his way to the top, Erdogan also has many reasons to fear what may happen to him and his family if he ever loses power.
Faced with such challenges, Erdogan can slowly move toward a quasi-formal dynasty, grooming a trusted and capable family member to take his place, of course, when he decides to step down. He would not be the first modern leader to think in those terms. Many one-man regimes from Qaddafi’s Libya to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq have attempted to institutionalize similar succession mechanisms. In North Korea, the Kim family regime, despite its communist pretensions, is in its third generation. This is not to make moral comparisons between Erdogan and these other, far more brutal strongmen, but to learn from their efforts to create dynasties.
In the aftermath of the coup attempt, it is difficult to blame Erdogan for lacking trust in anyone but family: even his personal military aide is being charged for participating in the coup. If Erdogan moves that direction, who would be the next in line? Erdogan has four children. His older son Burak has shielded himself from politics and public scrutiny ever since he was involved in a fatal car crash in 1998 that was resolved rather controversially (the young Erdogan was acquitted). He is unlikely to enter politics anytime soon.
His younger brother Bilal, on the other hand, is much more of a public persona in Turkey. He has a master’s degree from Harvard’s J.F.K. School of Public Policy and is currently pursuing a PhD at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center in Italy. However, Bilal makes for an unlikely candidate for two reasons. First, he was deeply embroiled in Turkey’s 2013 corruption scandal and he is again in legal trouble in Bologna, with money laundering charges on the table. Second, despite his academic credentials, Bilal is not known for his wit. For example, when his personal phone conversations with his father were leaked during the 2013 corruption scandal, the opposition reacted by dubbing the phrase “tell it like you would tell it to Bilal,” implying that Bilal may not be the sharpest member of the family. In the aftermath of the coup, Bilal Erdogan made numerous public appearances, which suggests that he may play a somewhat bigger role in Turkish politics. However, it remains highly unlikely that he can fill in the very big shoes of his father and emerge as his replacement.
Erdogan’s elder daughter Esra Erdogan Albayrak is also well-educated, with an undergraduate degree from Indiana University and a master’s from Berkeley. However, she has refrained from active engagement in politics, making her an unlikely replacement to Erdogan.
The youngest sibling, Sumeyye Erdogan (Bayraktar), is a different story. With degrees from Indiana University and London School of Economics, Sumeyye has acted as an adviser to the vice-president of AKP for years. Furthermore, she joined her father in many of his official foreign travels. It is often reported that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long been grooming her for political office.
There are two more potential candidates from Erdogan’s family: his sons-in-law, both of whom are high-profile candidates with strong credentials and connections. The most likely candidate is Berat Albayrak, Esra’s spouse. Albayrak comes from a prominent business family, holds an M.B.A. from the United States, and, most importantly, is already Turkey’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, all before the age of 40. Almost universally accepted as a capable and charismatic politician (even by the AKP’s opponents), Albayrak will be at the top of Erdogan’s list for a successor. Albayrak also passed the coup attempt test with flying colors, establishing himself as one of the most trusted and reliable members of Erdogan’s political entourage. He was the only minister standing by Erdogan’s side during his fiery speech after the coup attempt.
Finally, there is the newcomer, Selcuk Bayraktar, who married Summeye in a spectacular wedding in Istanbul only a couple of months ago. Bayraktar is a young industrialist with close ties to the Turkey’s Ministry of Defense and military. He also holds a master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is currently working on his PhD at Georgia Tech, equipping him with formidable credentials. While it may be premature to comment on his political ambitions, it seems likely that Bayraktar will also be on Erdogan’s list of potential successors, not just due to his own record but his marriage to the president’s most politically adept child.
The Collapse? Absolute Power as Absolute Regime Fragility
So, what happens if Erdogan does not opt for a dynasty? Put simply, unless Erdogan addresses the issue of succession, his mental and physical health will be the prime determinant of his regime’s survival.
With every step he took to consolidate his power further, Erdogan created new enemies, ranging from the Gulen movement to numerous members of the secularist camp. The lengths to which the coup plotters were willing to go to take down Erdogan will remain as a brutal reminder of the fact that his enemies are not to be taken lightly. Erdogan emerged out of the coup attempt even more powerful in the political sphere, but the event will still serve as a national trauma, especially when coupled with the ongoing “great purge.” These will leave Turkey increasingly paranoid and also suggests a key vulnerability: The stability of the entire regime, even the very country itself, depends on the very person of Erdogan. Any sign of vulnerability that he displays, even a temporary one, will encourage his enemies, pacified for now but not eliminated, to strike again.
While Erdogan’s opponents may welcome such an outcome, a collapse of the regime will likely lead to further instability in the country. He has booby-trapped the country for political unrest. Erdogan is not responsible for Turkey’s deep ethnic and political schisms, but, in his attempts to establish himself as the “unipole” of Turkish politics, he added fuel to the fire. Erdogan seems intent on gutting many of Turkey’s long-standing institutions ranging from the armed forces to the judiciary, re-imagining them as semi-functional dependencies in his political kingdom.
Regardless of which of the two options Erdogan chooses, one thing is certain, unless he entertains a third one: Turkish winter is most certainly coming, either in the form of an autocratic dynasty or internal strife shaped by increasingly irreconcilable ethnic and political (e.g., secularist versus Islamist) divisions.
So, what would be a third option? It would entail a scenario where AKP – and Turkey — moves away from the “cult of reis” and incorporates more transparency and real competition in the party’s leadership. Two factors make this scenario unlikely, if not impossible. First, Erdogan’s record suggests that he is reluctant to embrace any intra-party challenge to his authority. Second, it would be near-impossible for any AKP challenger to keep the intricate house of cards Erdogan built over the years, discouraging AKP members from gambling with intra-party competition.
In the aftermath of the failed coup, the saga of Erdogan not only continues, but it is also getting increasingly intertwined with the story of modern Turkey. Put differently, Erdogan has amassed so much power that Turkey’s fate and that of his own have now become literally inseparable. The interesting question, and challenge, that lies ahead is one that most spectators rarely think about: what will post-Erdogan Turkey look like? Erdogan’s choice over succession mechanisms will shape that future. Even this fact speaks volumes to the one-man regime that Turkey is becoming.
Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Turkish state