Succession: The Question of Power Transition in Erdogan’s Turkey

by Haşim Tekineş, published on 6 December 2023
Succession: The Question of Power Transition in Erdogan’s Turkey

His electoral victory in May 2023 gave President Erdoğan five more years to further consolidate his power, eviscerate institutions, fill the bureaucracy with yes-men and expand his corruption network. This, of course, raises questions about the Turkish political system’s chances of recovery, the prospects for democratization after Erdogan and the regime’s tolerance for his demise. Given the length of Erdoğan’s rule (+20 years), his age (69) and his illness, the question of succession will increasingly dominate Turkish politics in the coming years.

Erdoğan’s departure from office does not mean the collapse of his regime, let alone a return to democracy. Elite support could help Erdogan’s successor maintain the regime. The end of the current regime would mean loss of income for many businessmen close to the AKP, loss of privilegedpositions in the bureaucracy, and perhaps prosecutions for corruption and other crimes. The primary interest of AKP elites would therefore be the continuation of the existing political order after Erdoğan. This common interest, rather than internal struggles over Erdogan’s throne, could provide effective coordination among AKP elites to maintain the regime.

Turkey’s tradition of multi-party democracy is the biggest obstacle to the continuation of the Erdoğan regime after him.

Secular and nationalist groups still wield considerable power, with a broad social base, parties in the Parliament, and influence in the bureaucracy.

Over the years, President Erdogan has managed to establish full control over the military. But it does not mean proper civilian control over the military but rather Erdogan’s personal authority.

The Turkish military is unlikely to defy Erdogan’s personal authority but can return as an influential political actor after him.

Erdoğan’s unexpected death due to illness could be catastrophic if Erdogan’s family and inner circle fail to make the necessary arrangements to guarantee the regime’s continuity. This would not only stop their income streams or access to power, but also usher in a period of revenge. It is therefore important to further weaken secular/nationalist groups and homogenize the ruling elite while Erdoğan is still strong enough. These succession preparations may be one reason for the tensions between the AKP and the MHP that have surfaced as personal rivalries between Berat Albayrak and Süleyman Soylu, or for the current Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya’s fight against organized crime, gangs allegedly linked to the MHP.

The conditions of Turkish politics are not favorable for hereditary succession. The current distribution of power and deepening economic crisis complicate the bid for presidency anyone from Erdogan family. Yet, these are not insurmountable problems in the long run. A prolonged reign of Erdoğan could make the necessary changes to ensure the continuation of the Erdoğan dynasty.

According to studies of authoritarian succession, democratization after the death of an autocrat is unlikely. Nevertheless, popular demand for democratization, a more integrated Turkish economy with Western countries, and political leadership could put Turkey back on the democratic track.