Putin might have a lesson for Erdoğan

Analysts and scholars often liken Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The reasons are easy to grasp - Turkey’s transformation from a flawed democracy to a competitive authoritarian polity, its rift with Europe and the United States, the Moscow-Ankara double act in Middle Eastern diplomacy coupled with the cordial links between the two strongmen are all valid points.

But as I, as well as others, have argued, there are extensive differences between Russia and Turkey, and juxtaposing the two is a worthwhile exercise. Most of all, because it helps us understand how authoritarian systems work, what makes them tick, how they deal with risks and challenges, in order to secure their futures.

A bombshell Putin dropped during his annual speech on the state of the Russian Federation illustrates the point. Speaking before both chambers of the legislature, the Russian president outlined ideas for constitutional amendments. Several caught the attention of Moscow-watchers.

Firstly, making it impossible for the president to serve more than two terms. Secondly, giving parliament extra powers to appoint the prime minister and cabinet, as well as the heads of security services, the defence and interior ministries. Thirdly, beefing up the State Council, an advisory body bringing together top federal-level and regional officials, the speakers of the two parliamentary chambers and the leaders of all factions.

The Kremlin is wasting no time. Less than a week after Putin’s address, his draft is already in the State Duma. There is no doubt it will be approved in good time to be put to a popular vote in early April.

The meaning of the constitutional changes is no secret. It is all about Putin’s future after 2024 when his last term as president comes to an end. Rather than staying in the Kremlin by abolishing the term limits, he will handpick a successor and then move to another job. That could be head of the State Council, speaker of the Duma and leader of the governing party United Russia, or prime minister, as he was between 2008 and 2012 when he swapped jobs with Dmitri Medvedev.

But few doubt that Putin will remain the top dog for the observable future. Post-2024, his successor will not have chance to become the next Putin and will likely play second fiddle. It will not be a huge surprise if again Medvedev, who promptly resigned as a prime minister right after Putin’s speech, finds his way back to the presidency. For the time being, Putin is keeping his options open.

Erdoğan certainly does not have Putin’s problem on his hands. He is in the middle of his first term as an executive president under the system introduced by 2017 changes to the Turkish constitution. No doubt Erdogan will be a candidate again in 2023.

Turkey’s centennial will be the cornerstone of his campaign where he will be probably facing Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, or another figure appealing to a broad spectrum of voters.  But since elections in Turkey are no longer a level playing field, the odds will be firmly on Erdoğan’s side. This implies that his horizon is already 2028.

What happens in Russia over the next decade might hold lessons for Erdoğan. If Putin’s experiment in “leading from behind” and setting the conditions for gradual retreat from day-to-day governing does work, the Turkish president could also consider planting a surrogate at the helm after his two terms expire. Much depends of the quality of elections in Turkey.  Someone like Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, bereft of the president’s charisma and grassroots connections, has little chance of winning a majoritarian contest as they stand. But then again, who knows what elections will look like a decade from now.  

The alternative for Erdoğan is to change the constitution once more, go the Azerbaijan/Central Asia route, and become a president for life. This is not risk-free either. Erdoğan’s Islamist party and its far-right coalition allies might not have the requisite numbers in a future parliament to pass constitutional amendments. Even if they do, changes will have to be put to a plebiscite. Only die-hard party loyalists will back it, all others, including plenty of conservatives, would vote against. Making Erdoğan a lifetime leader would require mass fraud and manipulation at scale never seen before in Turkey.

 Authoritarian and, in Turkey’s case, semi-authoritarian regimes have a major flaw - succession is a formidable challenge. The leader concentrates so much power in his hands (it is usually a he) that passing the baton inevitably raises the spectre of instability, and even the downfall of the system. Putin is now moving to secure the long-term future of the system he built in his own image, and to safeguard his legacy. The clock could be soon ticking for Erdoğan as well.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.