Is Erdogan serious about retirement?

As Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again signals his final election, Turkey is buzzing with questions about his political future and potential successors. Will he follow through this time?

“I am working nonstop, because this is a final for me. Under the mandate given by the law this is my last election.”

These words, spoken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of the upcoming local elections, caused a stir in the West. News agencies reported that the leader was saying his “farewell” and announcing his “withdrawal” from politics.

In Turkey, on the other hand, Erdogan’s words drew ridicule. On social networks, commenters debated how many times he had already announced his departure — two, three or even four times already?

Hakki Tas, a political scientist with the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, was similarly skeptical. “In 2009, he said it would be his last election; in 2012, he said it would be his last time running for the party presidency; and in 2023, he promised this would be last time asking for voter support before handing over the baton to the younger generation,” Tas told DW.

After every election victory, Erdogan advanced his agenda and expanded his political power. Today, he is more powerful than ever — the first head of state to also head the government and lead his party.

Tas believes Erdogan’s announcement is a tactical maneuver — a way to mobilize his supporters, who feel emotionally connected to the president, and ask for their trust.


20 years of ruling

Over the past 10 years, Turkey has held countless referendums, parliamentary, local and presidential elections — the political class, Turkish society and the economy went from one election campaign to the next.

The situation should calm down after the local elections on March 31, for a while at least. If no early parliamentary or presidential elections are called, Erdogan could rule until 2028. Should his party do well in the local elections, observers believe Erdogan plans to further extend his powers, change the constitution if possible and mull about his potential successor. To do this, he needs the backing of major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Antalya, as they account for almost half of the country’s economic output.

Most campaigning will focus on Istanbul, a metropolis of 17 million people. Polls there predict a neck-and-neck race. The city has been governed by the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2019, with Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu up for reelection. The 52-year-old is known throughout the country and has so far run a successful election campaign.

Murat Kurum of Erodgan’s ruling AKP party, meanwhile, has lacked real momentum in his election campaign. Although Kurum served as federal minister for the environment, urban planning and climate for five years, he is relatively unknown. Since the presidential system was introduction in Turkey, cabinet members have been somewhat overshadowed by Erdogan. The president has hogged the limelight, and few citizens are familiar with the members of his cabinet.

In the Turkish capital, Ankara, AKP candidate Turgut Altinok is also trailing. Incumbent Mansur Yavas of the CHP has a narrow lead, according to the latest polls.

In a bid to support his AKP party candidates, Erdogan has joined the election campaign. In recent weeks, the president has gone from one major event to the next, giving speeches and cheering on audiences as if he were standing for election himself.

Win Istanbul, Win Turkey

Erdogan knows the importance of Istanbul in Turkish politics. After all, his own political career began in the city, where he served as mayor from 1994 until 1998. Indeed, there’s a saying that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins the country.”

Metropolitan areas are also important for securing loyalties. After Erdogan’s AKP lost control over several cities in 2019, it came to light that the party had been installing party-affiliated persons in municipal jobs for years. Numerous major contracts were awarded to entrepreneurs loyal to the AKP party, with special privileges granted to nationalist and Islamist brotherhoods with close ties to the government.

Turkey expert Tas believes an AKP victory in the upcoming elections would boost the party’s self-confidence. Any electoral gains would be seen as support for the national government’s overall agenda, encouraging it to push ahead with ever more radical policies.


Who will be his successor?

Even if few citizens really believe Erdogan’s plans to retire, there has been growing talk over who may one day be his successor. Recently, pictures and videos have surfaced showing the 70-year-old looking listless and in poor health.

Following the failure of his eldest son-in-law Berat Albayrak to remain in power as finance minister, many suspect Erdogan is grooming either his son Bilal Erdogan or his younger son-in-law, arms manufacturer Selcuk Bayraktar, to succeed him.

But not everyone thinks they would be able to lead the AKP party as successfully as Erdogan. “There is hardly any party left, it is all about Erdogan,” said Tas.

Turkish journalist Ragip Soylu, meanwhile, said on social media platform X that a lot can happen until the 2028 presidential election. In the years to come, Erdogan could change his mind a few more times or even try to change the constitution, which currently limits presidents to two terms in office, said Soylu.

In fact, Erdogan’s AKP party is actually working to make a third term in office possible. However, it currently lacks the necessary 40 parliamentary seats to make a constitutional amendment, or call early elections. And it’s unclear whether, at this time, the party can gain the support of some smaller opposition parties to make this significant change.




Elmas Topcu