The rise of Süleyman Soylu: Turkey’s next president?

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has emerged in recent years as one of the strongest political figures in Turkey.

Soylu, with Black Sea region family roots, represents one of the leading hardliners within President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has increasingly been identified as one of the leading candidates likely to succeed Erdoğan.

This makes him a political rival of Berat Albayrak, who is Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Turkey's Finance and Treasury Minister, and leader of the informal power group within the AKP known as the Pelicans.

Soylu has kept a low profile at an international level, and few Western media outlets have analysed one of the most influential ministers within Erdoğan’s government. 

Hardliner

In 1995, Soylu, only 25 years old at the time, became the youngest district president in Turkish history, representing the now defunct conservative Doğru Yol Partisi (Right Path Party).

This party, then led by Tansu Çiller who became Turkey’s first female prime minister in 1993, was characterised by its ultranationalist and religious political discourse, which supported excessive use of military force against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

It is estimated that during that time, around 20 percent of Turkey’s national budget was used to fight the PKK, and that 300,000 security personnel took part in this conflict.

Çiller was also allegedly linked to the so-called Turkish “Deep State”, an informal state apparatus including politicians, secret agents, drug traffickers, security forces, and Turkish ultranationalist armed groups that sought economic and political gains from the state's fight against Kurdish and leftist armed organisations.

This informal apparatus was especially active during the 1990s, and Soylu grew up politically in this context.

After some time in the political wilderness, Soylu jumped onto Erdoğan’s political wagon and joined the AKP in 2012.

Before joining the AKP, Soylu had publicly mocked Erdoğan after he had fallen off a horse - accusing him of not being capable of riding a horse or of governing Turkey. In any case, these critiques were not a problem for Soylu, as he, after joining the AKP, pledged loyalty to Erdoğan.

After being elected as a member of the Turkish Parliament in 2015, Soylu was appointed as Labour and Social Security Minister in then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s cabinet.

Soylu’s quick ascent within AKP ranks came as Erdoğan and the AKP were changing the course of Turkish politics.

During that time, the AKP was fighting its former political ally, the Gülen movement, a religious group that had supported the AKP’s consolidation of power during the previous decade but which was later at odds with the party.

This political change forced Erdoğan to find new political allies, and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) became its new saviour - a change of alliance that roughly coincided with the breakdown of a ceasefire with the PKK in 2015 and the embrace of a more nationalist political discourse by the AKP.

This helped draw the support of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, and Soylu’s ministerial appointment is likely linked to that political alliance.

The fight against the Gülen movement, officially declared a terrorist group in May 2016 by the Turkish government - alongside the fight against the PKK and other Kurdish armed groups in Turkey and Syria - reinforced Soylu’s hard-line role.

In the cabinet reshuffle following the failed coup on July 15, 2016, allegedly led by the Gülen movement, Soylu was appointed Interior Minister, a position that he still holds.

He oversaw the massive purges following the failed coup. During that period, Soylu went so far as to accuse the United States of being behind the failed military coup and he labelled the Gülen movement as a plague that had to be cleared.

Soylu has also been one of the main AKP politicians threatening to "send" thousands of refugees currently living in Turkey into the European Union.

In this political context, Soylu has developed a specific role of an “iron fist” politician, representing the harshest face of the government when fighting the PKK and the Gülen movement.

These fights have led to thousands of deaths and internal displacement in southeastern Turkish provinces, alongside high levels of incarceration and has led to repeated accusations against the Turkish state of committing human rights violations, ultimately triggering a deterioration of the already fragile Turkish democracy.

But Soylu's hard-line politics have boosted his political profile at a national level, so much so that the media speculation has grown over his higher chances to succeed Erdoğan in power.

Power struggle

Halil Karaveli, author and writer at the Turkey Analyst website, said that Soylu appeals to both MHP and AKP supporters. Karaveli adds that Soylu even appears to be more popular than Albayrak among AKP circles. The enmity between Soylu and Albayrak is now common knowledge.  

Although Albayrak appears as Erdoğan’s natural “heir” - since he is young, has studied and worked in the United States, and, more importantly, is the president’s son-in-law - Soylu’s rising popularity show that other political dynamics are at play.

It is also worth noting that during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in Turkey, Soylu tendered his resignation after a botched weekend curfew was imposed, but - in an unprecedented move - Erdoğan refused to accept it. 

Given the current political alliances in Turkey, Soylu appears to be the guarantor of the state apparatus support of the current government, and ultimately, the guarantor of Erdoğan’s government political stability. His is likely informally supported by the Turkish state apparatus, including police, army, and secret services. “Soylu personifies and is the favourite of the ‘Deep State’,” Karaveli said.

Soylu’s profile seems to fulfil the requirements for Turkish national political leaders. He is a staunch nationalist, he has family roots in the Black Sea region, he is anti-Kurdish and he is anti-leftist. These values, alongside his relative youth, could make him a serious candidate for Turkish president.

On the other hand, Erdoğan does not tolerate serious rivals and anyone who becomes too powerful and popular is likely to find themselves at odds with him sooner or later. There has been recent media speculation over a possible upcoming cabinet reshuffle that could threaten Soylu’s current position.

Turkey’s political future could well be shaped by the internal fight between Albayrak’s faction of the Pelicans, and Soylu, who is ostensibly supported by the stronger nationalist actors and the ultranationalist factions of the MHP.

In all cases, the political struggle between Albayrak and Soylu is likely to determine Erdoğan’s future political steps, as he remains by far the most powerful figure in Turkey.

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