Erdogan prepares to leave the stage

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Leadership, Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent revelation that he is planning his exit from office raises the difficult questions of succession that all ageing leaders must eventually confront.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street, 2019.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street, 2019. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Few leaders start out with an exit plan. By the time they reach 21 years in office, it’s a topic they’d probably rather avoid. So Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent revelation, buried in a joint press conference with Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month, was astounding: he appeared to announce his retirement. Erdogan stated that the upcoming local elections, which will take place on 31 March, will be his last, giving him a comfortable four-year window: if held to schedule, the next polls will be the national elections in spring 2028. By then he will have already served his constitutional two-term limit, and will be ineligible to stand anyway unless parliament is dissolved and a snap election called in the meantime. Analysts have been left to pick over what the announcement means. Is it the starting gun on a long handover to a successor, or simply a piece of pre-election image-polishing and an attempt to dismiss criticisms of his mounting authoritarianism? Either way, Erdogan, who turned 70 in February and has long been plagued by reports of poor health, has shone a spotlight on the problem faced by aging or sick leaders who are determined to stay in office: how to conduct the final act?

It’s a question that is salient beyond Turkey: an increasing number of world leaders are either standing for or in office at an age when those in other careers would have retired. In the US this year a 78-year-old will challenge an 81-year-old for the presidency, meaning that the country is bound for a period of octogenarian rule. Others expect or are positioning themselves to stay in power until they die. In the UK, Charles III ascended the throne aged 73, and is being treated for cancer less than two years in. Some leaders tick both boxes: Russia’s Vladimir Putin is already 71 and has just retrenched his rule, and China’s Xi Jinping is 70 and has settled in as leader for life. Even at the lesser extremes, the global trend is shifting to the aged: at the first G20 meeting in 2008, the average age of the 19 national leaders in attendance was 59. By 2023, it was close to 65.

That has consequences for countries, and for those countries’ relations with each other. In 1993, Jerrold Post, a CIA analyst and psychiatrist, and Robert Robins, a political scientist, co-authored a book, When Illness Strikes the Leader, examining personal and institutional reactions to leaders’ frailties. They argue that neurological diseases, such as Alzheimers, are the most dangerous for those in power, as they take their toll on a leader’s executive decision making, but even natural aging will impact memory and energy levels. Sick leaders may be prey to bad counsel, or the ambitions of the courtiers around them. And all leaders, whether elected or hereditary, are figureheads, and as such their health becomes a symbol of the health of the nation; it is for good reason that the dying days of the Soviet Union are remembered as a time of grey old men. As a result, a leader’s declining health is usually concealed, if not totally, then at least in its gravity.

Charles has been widely applauded for revealing some of the details of his cancer diagnosis, despite the fact that there is little threat of him being overthrown as a result: he is in his position by birthright rather than election, and with the broad consensus of his subjects. That shows how rare it still is for a leader to admit to bodily weakness, whatever system they preside over. What is striking in the case studies detailed by Post and Robins are not the differences, but the similarities between the responses in democracies and dictatorships, monarchies and republics. Almost unfailingly, leaders and their courtiers try to conceal their old age or illness, usually reasoning that it is in the national interest. French President Georges Pompidou didn’t even tell his wife when he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him. Winston Churchill was a sick and self-deluding old man when he took office for a second time in 1950, on one occasion even forgetting that the electric power industry had been nationalised. But by keeping up their normal routines and commitments, sick leaders can ensure that any rumours of their illness are far harder to confirm, even when their physical decline is staring the world in the face.

The emergence of social media in the three decades since that book was published has complicated such an approach. The Princess of Wales’ PR team knew that the disappearance of the royal family’s most photographed member would not go unnoticed, but they were caught in a Catch-22: say nothing and create a vacuum to be filled by online speculation, or reveal her illness and spark weeks of commentary. The middle way – a barebones statement revealing that she was undergoing unspecified abdominal surgery – ended up triggering both outcomes.

Erdogan’s image is even more tightly controlled than the British royal family’s; he makes his entrance to rallies by helicopter, and is constantly flanked by a squad of close-protection guards. Although he has kept up with his turbocharged schedule – it is a rare day that he doesn’t give a speech somewhere – the decline in his health is becoming increasingly obvious. On occasions he appears to be struggling to walk. During election campaigning last year, he suffered what was officially described as a bout of indigestion during a live television interview, which led to the broadcast being cut and Erdogan taking several days off to recover. When he returned, he took regular offstage breaks during his speech to a mass rally.

Post and Robbins note early on that one of the worst forms of government, perhaps even more dangerous than outright tyranny, is the shadow leader controlled and manipulated by unknown forces behind the throne. In Turkey, there is a long and deeply-held suspicion of the ‘deep state’: a cabal of ultra-nationalists within the security forces who ultimately control the elected politicians. There had been four coups against governments that the military deemed too Islamist by the time Erdogan’s party came to power in 2002. For the first decade of his tenure, he was viewed as the leader who had finally ended military tutelage in Turkey; a series of trials in the late 2010s removed many of the most powerful generals, who were accused of coup plotting.

In doing so, he empowered another cabal, the secretive Islamist network known as the Gulenists, who Erdogan accuses of launching the coup attempt of 2016. Meanwhile, in order to maintain its parliamentary majority, Erdogan’s party entered into coalition with the very hard right faction that is tied to the old deep state. Since then, his policies and rhetoric have become noticeably more nationalist. Whereas, at the beginning of his tenure, Erdogan supported a peace process with Kurdish separatists and opened a space for Kurdish civil society (to the chagrin of nationalist factions), in his later era he has ordered wide-scale military operations in Kurdish areas and a crackdown on Kurdish language, culture and politics. The exact nature and extent of the ultra-nationalists’ sway over his decision-making is unclear, but it is certain that they are exercising power behind the throne. More recently, a crop of ambitious courtiers has risen swiftly through his ranks, while the older colleagues that he founded his party with have defected, been sidelined or cast out. On occasion that has posed a threat: the former interior minister Suleyman Soylu built up his own power base within the security forces, and at one point appeared to be positioning himself to challenge his boss. Privately, some of Erdogan’s oldest allies admit that power has changed him and that the people who now surround him are unable or unwilling to give good counsel.

That leads us to Erdogan’s dilemma, and one that will eventually also afflict peers such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Serbia’s Aleksander Vucic. The systems these 21st-century autocrats have moulded represent a new type of illiberalism. Rather than ruling as outright dictators, they have shifted emerging and fragile democracies into reverse and turned them into competitive autocracies, in which they maintain a veneer of democracy through elections while all other democratic checks and balances, such as a free media and independent courts, are dismantled. As the competitive autocrat’s tenure progresses, their institutional power increases but their popular support tends to dwindle – partly thanks to the bad advice they’re taking from their obsequious circle – and so they rely ever heavier on the ballot box, leveraging their control over the electoral process to keep winning by means both fair and foul. Their list of opponents grows with their paranoia. After a certain point, standing down, whether by accepting electoral defeat or retiring, becomes impossible: their most fanatical supporters are unlikely to recognise a new leader, while their most fanatical opponents (and the incoming government) may seek redress for their misdemeanours in office. In that case their only option for a peaceful retirement would be to leave the country. Best to oversee a transition to a hand-picked successor who will neither threaten their legacy, nor do anything to disturb their retirement or the final days of their rule.

The problem for Erdogan now is: who? Erdogan initially appeared to be grooming Berat Albayrak, a businessman turned politician and – most importantly – the husband of his eldest daughter, Esra. Nepotism is the oldest and surest way of securing succession, but Erdogan’s own sons come with baggage. The oldest, Ahmet, left the country in 1998 after hitting and killing a classical music singer while driving without a license and being chased by police. His younger son, Bilal, is the president of a traditional Turkic sports federation, but lacks his father’s charisma and political nous. His two daughters, while politically and socially astute, never even appeared to be in the running. Albayrak seemed to be the answer, and was quickly promoted through the cabinet after entering parliament in 2015. But as treasury minister from June 2018, he presided over a period of abject economic failure, albeit under instructions from his father-in-law. The lira slumped, inflation soared, and foreign investment drained away. In November 2020, and amid rumours of infidelity, he quit the cabinet via a post on Instagram, and has not appeared publicly since.

There are now two names being touted as heirs. The first is Erdogan’s other son-in-law, drone manufacturer Selcuk Bayraktar, who is married to his second daughter, Sumeyye. Although he has never held political office, Bayraktar’s profile has soared in recent years as the drones his company produces have been used on battlefields in Ukraine, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa. He is an English speaker and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, young at 44 years old, and markedly more worldly than most in his father-in-law’s circle. Bayraktar is also thought to be a moderating power behind the throne, who helped persuade Erdogan to revert to a more orthodox economic path following last year’s national elections. The other is Hakan Fidan, the long-term spy chief who was appointed foreign minister last year. During his 13 years in charge of Turkey’s intelligence agency he oversaw a huge expansion in its manpower, facilities and mission, turning it from an agency that had traditionally been internally focused to one that also conducts operations overseas. His loyalty to his boss is absolute, and he has the advantage of his international network built through years of backchannel negotiations with counterparts around the world. Like Bayraktar he is no polished politician, and certainly no match for the master populist Erdogan – meaning that he is also unlikely to raise his own challenge for leadership.

Whoever is being primed for succession, a managed transition would arguably be better than the certain alternative: a disruptive and chaotic change of power. Like other modern autocrats, Erdogan has hollowed out the state and courts during his time in office, stuffing key posts with loyalists who do his bidding. That will take years and careful management to untangle, but the opposition has been out of power for most of this millennium, and is riddled by factionalism and infighting; few Turks, even those who staunchly oppose Erdogan, believe that they could govern effectively, but the choice of heir is key, and there are few clues as to how either of the two tipped candidates will govern, or to what extent they will be bound to follow their mentor’s path. Erdogan wrote the blueprint for other competitive autocrats around the world. They will be watching for tips as he writes the final chapter.


Hannah Lucinda Smith