There have been many domestic and foreign initiatives demanding the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned for four years without being sentenced. The most resounding of these was undoubtedly the call made by ten ambassadors to the Turkish government in Ankara last month. Erdoğan’s threat to declare the ambassadors ‘personae non grata’ did not materialise, but at the end of the day, Osman Kavala has not been released. At best, he will remain in jail until the end of November. Nevertheless, this affair evoked an inevitable parallel in the minds of many observers between the atmosphere of the Ottoman capital in the mid-19th century and that of the Turkish capital in the first quarter of the 21st century, as both being ‘infiltrated’ by foreign missions.
The Ottoman administration of the 1850s was exposed to the interventions of the Great Powers, mainly France, England and Russia, mostly with demands for democratisation and protection of the non-Muslim population. Parallel to the implementation of major administrative reforms, the Ottoman state had also entered a period of collapse, which led to its nickname, ‘sick man’. According to this view, the Ottoman Empire was a patient whose eventual death was inevitable but could be postponed. The role played by the ambassadors in Istanbul was becoming more and more important to the extent of being influential in the decision-making processes of the state. In the next period, the emerging Ottoman/Turkish nationalism would develop a narrative that held these ‘imperialist’ interventions responsible for the collapse of the empire.
Considering the current state of the Turkish economy and its bankrupt foreign policy, it can be said that a similar period of collapse is repeating itself. The ambassadors’ initiative further evokes the image of the sick man in the collective political memory. Moreover, this perception overlaps this time with the connotations created by the concerns about President Erdoğan’s medical condition. It is understood that before us is not only a state and a country, but also a body that personifies them, a real ‘sick man’.
Rumours about Erdoğan’s illness began to be spoken loudly with an article by Steven Cook published in Foreign Policy magazine on October 1, 2021, the title of which speaks for itself: ‘Erdoğan might be too sick to keep leading Turkey’. In another recent commentary, the Erdoğan-led Turkish economy is described as ‘a stolid old horse under a drunken cowboy’. In a lengthy analysis on this issue in the Financial Times, it is stated that Erdoğan is detached from reality.
Erdoğan’s deteriorating health coincides with a time when opinion polls show an irreversible decline in the ruling AKP-MHP bloc and Erdoğan’s popularity among potential presidential candidates and opposition bloc parties. These circumstances foster an environment in which post-Erdoğan scenarios are produced in both ruling and opposition circles.
Steven Cook’s forecast finds the opposition’s odds of winning early or timely elections and seizing power by ‘normal’ means slim. Instead, it envisions a transition of power from Erdoğan to Defence Minister Hulusi Akar under state of emergency. Akar, although not a popular political figure within the ruling AKP, controls the military through his loyal officers. He is also known to be supported by the secret service MIT chief Hakan Fidan and has good relations with NATO and the USA.
Akar’s possible rival in an extraordinary transition is pronounced as Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. Soylu’s strength comes not merely from his dominance over the country’s half-million strong police and gendarmerie, but also from the political support he receives from AKP’s de facto coalition partner, the ultranationalist MHP. His weakness, on the other hand, consists of a string of recent corruption allegations made by one of his former accomplices, exiled mafia boss Sedat Peker.
If we take Steven Cook’s estimation as the projection of the US administration, Turkey’s future is probably in the hands of the military once again, the alternative of which is a police state under the disgraced interior minister; rather bleak prospects for any democratic benchmark.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, is reportedly determined to keep on as long as he can and when (and if) his personal rule becomes impossible to sustain, he would opt for the formation of an Erdoğan dynasty. His two sons are obviously unfit to be his successors due to criminal records or incompetence. Son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who was once seen as a successor but was dismissed as Minister of Finance due to failures and erratic behaviour, is said to be preparing to return after a year of low profile. Younger groom Selçuk Bayraktar is also glorified by the pro-palace media as the architect of the armed drones, the primary export item of Turkey’s emerging military-industrial complex. Such a post-Kemalist dynastic dream can be compared to the post-communist dynasties of Kim Jong-un and Aliev or Bashar Assad’s post-Baathist power struggle rather than a divine desire of the resuscitation of the centuries-old Ottoman legacy.
Other sources report that Erdoğan is well aware, or will soon realise that he cannot be re-elected, and is therefore open to contingency plans for a peaceful transition. In this context, the name of Abdullah Gül is once again on the agenda. As a founding leader of the AKP and the previous President of Turkey, Gül is expected to stand out as a presidential candidate with whom both the government and opposition will agree. The main purpose of this smooth transition is Erdoğan’s safe eviction from the palace with legal exemption from any corruption or other charges so that he does not face jail time and does not lose the enormous wealth he amassed during his presidency.
The CHP-led opposition bloc seems to ignore any of these options and focus on an orderly transition project. They are preparing for the upcoming general elections in a year and a half at the latest, by agreeing on a road map that will dethrone Erdoğan and restore the parliamentary system with the support of the Kurdish voters from outside the bloc.
The left and right components of the opposition bloc seem to be aware of possible roadblocks on their route to power and are advancing by exposing the anti-democratic preparations in the palace circles. The status of Erdoğanist paramilitary structures like SADAT and the practices of pro-Erdoğan organisations like Tügva are brought to the public’s attention and questioned. Forecasted major political assassinations, mass massacres or chauvinistic war with the Syrian Kurds have not taken place, but that does not mean these options can now be safely ruled out. Besides, provocative attacks against IYI Party chairwoman Akşener do not fall off the agenda, while pro-Erdoğan pundits are now agitating for the closure of the main opposition party CHP.
Despite scenarios of extra-parliamentary intervention, the popularity of the opposition bloc is showing signs of growth with each passing day. It is every democratic subjects’ expectation that their rise will push Erdoğan aside and stop Turkey’s economy from getting worse.
However, the problem of the ‘sick man’ may still remain.
In the late 19th Century, Ottoman/Turkish nationalists thought that the indigenous and exogenous pressures for democratisation were the main reason of the Empire’s sickness, a perception that, under similar circumstances, coincides with the mindset of Turkish nationalists of our time. The view of the contemporary opposition bloc parties to the Kurdish demands for recognition and equality through democratisation, for example, is identical to the Young Turks’ hostility to the demands of the Christian population in the 1910s.
The cost of the misdiagnosis of sick man’s disease was too dear for the peoples of Turkey to be reimbursed after more than a century.
Pathology or the ‘sickness’ will probably now be found not in the demands for recognition and equality but in the resistance against democratisation.