Recep Tayyip Erdoğan marked his 18th year in power today. When he won a special parliamentary election and then assumed the premiership, he was a middle-aged former mayor who eschewed the excesses of his Islamist past and promised to be both a reformer and bridge-builder. He was neither. Rather than reform and improve Turkey’s flawed democracy, he eviscerated it and, rather than expand Turkey’s big tent, he expanded the country’s prisons to accommodate the now continuous purges.
Perhaps the only thing upon which Erdoğan’s supporters and critics can agree is that the aging autocrat has been Turkey’s most consequential leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the modern republic almost one century ago. No one knows how Erdoğan’s reign will end let alone where he will be buried but, ultimately, who come next may be the most important question to see what trajectory a post-Erdoğan Turkey might take.
There is hope, at least among some Turkey hands at the State Department, that Turkey will return to the status quo ante after Erdoğan. This is naïve. Turkey’s population has increased nearly 20 million since Erdoğan came to power. About the same number of Turks have had the entirety of their education under his curriculum. Another 13 million or so have had the bulk of their post-primary education under Erdoğan. The same dynamic has been at play in Turkey’s once-secular military. The outlook among Turkey’s military officers today has far less in common with their European counterparts and far more with their Pakistani ones. Perhaps some among Turkey’s “Generation Z” have turned against the mercurial ruler: after all, he has both restricted freedom and tanked the economy, but greater fertility among in rural or conservative regions may undercut the observations of Istanbul-based observers.
Erdoğan’s desire appears to be to keep leadership in his family. In this, he is similar to late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad who arranged for son Bashar to succeed him (after his oldest son and heir-apparent Bassel died in a car wreck); late Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi who sought to place son Saif in his place; and Hosni Mubarak who maneuvered to install son Gamal as his successor. Only Assad succeeded. Saif failed as his father teetered. Hosni’s efforts to promote his son may actually have been the factor that led the Egyptian military to accede to his ouster. Simply put, keeping Turkey an Erdoğan family business may be easier said than done.
That is not for lack of trying: While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was the vehicle that propelled Erdoğan to power, he long ago pushed it aside in favor of family. Protocol offered his children and their spouses greater consideration than ministers. For years, it appeared that Berat Albayrak, husband to Erdoğan’s eldest daughter Esra, was Erdoğan’s unstated choice to succeed him. Erdoğan promoted his unqualified son-in-law first to be energy minister (where he sought to profit from Islamic State oil) and then to be finance minister (where investors questioned his basic competence). In November 2020, Albayrak resigned abruptly against the backdrop of a slide in the value of the Turkish currency. While some Turks highlight drama in the family—a rumored affair and, more recently, a physical beating in which Erdoğan allegedly broke Berat’s nose—others suggest that with economic disaster looming, Erdoğan removed Berat in order to shield him from immediate blame. Erdoğan is also unlikely to abandon Berat unless he is able to groom his own son to replace him: To lose family control, after all, would be to risk enabling successors to recover the multibillion-dollar family fortune that Erdoğan accumulated during his time in office.
While Erdoğan is a force while alive, the intimidation associates feel will dissipate upon his death. Here, history is a guide. With the exception of Atatürk and his Republican Peoples Party (CHP), the political parties that Turkish leaders used to consolidate power did not survive their deaths. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party dominated Turkey from 1950-1960, but dissolved soon after his ouster and execution. Likewise, Prime Minister-turned-President Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party did not survive long after his 1993 death.
This suggests that the AKP will likely fracture with its most prominent leaders breaking off to form their own political parties. Indeed, this has already begun. Former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan have both split from the AKP to form their own parties. Babacan has a generally positive reputation among Turks for his stewardship of the economy and diplomats for his moderation.
Davutoğlu, meanwhile, was the intellectual godfather of the neo-Ottoman policies that Erdoğan tried to implement. He also is probably the most prominent Turk associated with exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen whose arrest Erdoğan has not (yet) ordered, although the Erdoğan did seek to humiliate Davutoğlu. Former President Abdullah Gül’s name is sometimes mentioned but, on a personal level, he is too cowardly to survive in the rough-and-tumble Turkish political sphere without Erdoğan protecting him.
An AKP collapse may open the door to the CHP. Mansur Yavaş, who won Ankara’s mayoralty in 2019, has seen his popularity skyrocket as he makes commonsense reforms and improvements. Some polls now show him up 15 percent versus the AKP. That he is a center-right figure who works within a center-left party broadens his appeal.
He may not be the only mayor to seek the presidential palace. Ekrem İmamoğlu won the mayoralty of Istanbul not once but twice after Erdoğan cancelled the initial election. That İmamoğlu won Turkey’s most prestigious district—one which Erdoğan himself once held—also puts him in a position to win control upon Erdoğan’s death or ouster.
A wildcard, of course, would be Turkey’s return to a parliamentary system, especially if enough Turks recognize the damage Erdoğan did with a strong executive. Meral Aksener, a former member of the nationalist party who broke away to form her own, underperformed in the last elections but could still be a factor in coalition politics. İlhan Kesici, a CHP member with a right-of-center background who previously served as a budget director, hails from a religious family, and has a reputation for statesmanship, could check all the boxes and emerge as a compromise but capable leader.
The only certainty is that when Erdoğan’s tenure ends, it will be much more sudden than any expect: No dictator wakes up thinking today will be his last day. While it is easy for the U.S. Embassy and European diplomats to ignore the political opposition and focus only on Erdoğan and his inner circle, it is essential they develop relations now with those who seek to replace Erdoğan. Indeed, nothing could signal more the importance the West places on Turkey’s democracy than a concerted effort to respect the country’s political plurality.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.