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What Happens if Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan Dies?

Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

If Erdogan Dies, It Will be Too Soon to Celebrate: Earlier today, during a televised interview, a sudden medical emergency incapacitated Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s office dismissed the incident as the result of a stomach bug, but rumors swirl inside Turkey that the president has had a heart attack and that his condition worsened while in the hospital.

Turkey is an authoritarian police state without free media and so it is impossible at this point to know the truth. Every democrat wakes up each morning knowing when his or her administration will end. Every dictator wakes up having to worry that today could be his last. Erdogan has long been in the latter camp.

Make no mistake: His reign will end, by death, exile, imprisonment, or execution. The notion that a man who disdains democracy would voluntarily step down or allow election monitors to confirm him to be a loser is farfetched, a fantasy of diplomats and think tankers. 

If Erdogan does die or if he uses his health crisis to pass his candidacy to a relative or pawn, neither the United States nor Europe should celebrate. After 20 years of Erdoganism, there is no easy return to the status quo ante.

During this period, Erdogan has taken over the banking sector and the state audit boards. He was able to indoctrinate (or at least try to brainwash) more than 30 million schoolchildren. While he may not have succeeded to create the “religious generation” he promised—the association of religion with corruption in the minds of many Turks was a natural brake on such efforts—he did fan the flames of both conspiratorialism and extreme nationalism.

Religious seminary graduates and Erdoganist ideologues now permeate the entire bureaucracy. Absent a mass purge, it will be impossible to weed them out.

He has also transformed the military: Every soldier, sailor, and pilot now owes their career and advancement to fealty to Erdogan. Those who put Turkey first are now in prison. 

The Turkish economy is in ruins. Erdogan and his cronies have squirreled away or stolen a rumored $400 billion. Some of this was lost to Russia, more exists in Dubai or Doha, the Cayman Islands or Panama. It will take an international effort to recover the stolen money. The track record of the international community on such efforts is poor. If it were not, London’s real estate market would have crashed a long time ago.

It will take even longer to repair society. The coup leaders’ legacies in 1960 and 1980 were bad, but Erdogan’s has been worse. Prison gates must open, and the victims of his political witch hunts compensated. He eviscerated civil society. There is no longer any independent press of which to speak, at least inside Turkey.

He has set ethnic minorities against each other and encouraged base hatred toward Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians, Alevis and Kurds not experienced in what is now Turkey since the days of the Young Turks and subsequently Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Turkish forces must withdrawal from Syria, Iraq, and Cyprus. They must stop threatening Armenia and Greece.

Erdogan’s institutions have corrupted some in both the United States and Europe. Documents should be open to inspection to see who and how he sought to bypass U.S. law and how some proxies made a mockery of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Congress must realize how he and some in Washington foundations, think tanks, and universities sought to play them.

The point is this: There will be wishful thinking in both Washington and Brussels that the worst in relations with Turkey is over. That may be true, but it would be premature to believe that a return to the status quo ante is imminent. 

Certainly, both the United States and Europe should work with a post-Erdogan Turkey to move in the right direction. It is in everyone’s interest to have a Turkey at peace with itself and its neighbors. Turkey should be a force for stability and a democracy rather than kleptocracy. It will take time.

Dr. Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).