Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently joined the ranks of ailing leaders whose illnesses seem mainly to be leading the pundits astray.
In an article on the Foreign Policy website earlier this month, Steven Cook described several worrisome videos that, taken together, may indicate that the Turkish president is unwell. That should require Turkey, as well as other Middle Eastern countries and the United States, to consider the prospect that Erdogan will become incapacitated or incapable of running in the 2023 presidential election.
In the videos, Erdogan seemed to have trouble walking on his own, needing help from his wife, Emine. He looked unsteady on a visit to the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and sounded confused in speaking to the leadership of his Justice and Development party. He even appeared to fall asleep during the speech.
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Cook’s article made major waves. It was cited in media reports from Turkey and elsewhere, and thousands of words were written about “post-Erdogan Turkey.” Reports of a war of succession within his party even became the topic of conversation.
Turkey’s Directorate of Communications, which occupies a huge 27-story building, immediately responded with videos of Erdogan playing soccer. In addition, “sources close to him” accused the West, primarily the United States, and domestic rivals – mainly those associated with exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen – of being behind the article in a bid to destabilize the Turkish government.
But no medical document refuting the article has yet been made public. It also bears recalling that “credible,” “well-founded” reports once claimed that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had pancreatic cancer and that his days were numbered. Given his subsequent longevity, he apparently experienced the greatest medical miracle since Jesus' resurrection of the dead.
In any event, Erdogan shows no signs of taking early retirement or sitting out the next election. As an autocrat who has concentrated most executive powers in his own hands and who completely controls parliament, he has yet to appoint a vice president.
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He abolished the prime minister’s position through constitutional amendments, changing Turkey's system of government to a presidential one and preventing rivals to him from arising. He suppresses members of parliament and senior party officials who question his policies, just as he has suppressed the country's free press.
For Erdogan, every day is part of an election campaign. After addressing the UN General Assembly in September, he promised to change Turkey's election law to lower parties' minimum percentage of the vote for parliamentary representation – from 10 percent (the highest in the world) to 5 or 7 percent.
But the commitment shouldn't be viewed as an effort to democratize the country. It’s primarily meant to help Erdogan's coalition partner, the radical nationalist MHP party, which polls don't show passing the current electoral threshold.
Erdogan is familiar with these polls, which also show his own party taking a hit. That's due to the country's deep economic crisis, which has sent the Turkish lira to unprecedented lows, as well as Turkey's involvement in the Syrian civil war and the flawed handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He’ll have trouble forming a single-party government, and therefore, he needs to bolster his coalition partner.
At the same time, Erdogan is intensifying the nationalist discourse, threatening to launch a new military campaign in Syria, which is a nerve-wracking threat for senior American and Russian officials. A declaration by the Turkish president last week prompted a harsh American rebuke.
In connection with an October 10 missile attack on a Turkish military convoy in which two Turkish special police officers were killed, Erdogan had said that Turkey is determined to eliminate the threats originating from Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria “either with the active forces there or by our own means.”
President Joe Biden then sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which he wrote: “The situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Erdogan also heard President Vladimir Putin’s position on September 29 when the two leaders met in Sochi. Russia opposes Turkish military operations in Syria and made this clear when Russian jets bombed a pro-Syrian militia's base in late September near the city of Afrin, which has been occupied by Turkey. But Erdogan continues to walk a fine line, bolstering his image as the sole leader who can create regional crises with international implications. This month, he is expected to buy 40 new F-16 warplanes and 80 modernization kits for existing planes.
The Biden administration and the U.S. Congress, which oppose the major weapons deals with Turkey due to Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems, are expected to reject the Turkish request – or at the very last delay it – but such a decision could very well lead Erdogan to intensify his military ties with Russia all the more.
The game Erdogan is playing between the superpowers has equipped him with important political ammunition – through which he can present himself domestically in Turkey as a master statesman who is irreplaceable. Is he a sick and weak leader on the verge of retirement? Not yet.