March 21 (Bloomberg) -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a true Cinderella story, a back-street kid who went from playing semi-professional soccer to become the country’s most powerful leader in decades.
Women love him, so do investors and so does the Arab Street. A recent opinion poll found that he was more popular among Turks than even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s founder and military savior. And yet, Erdogan is mortal.
Twice this year, Turkey’s 58-year-old prime minister has checked into hospital to undergo surgery on his abdomen, triggering a maelstrom of rumors that he was suffering from cancer. For a few months, Turks’ two favorite pastimes -- speculating on which soccer team will win the Turkish league and what will happen in the next episode of “Magnificent Century,” a costume soap about Suleiman the Magnificent -- have taken a back seat to discussing Erdogan’s health.
A foreign institutional investor living in Ankara recently told me he had spoken to as many as 20 different Turks who swore to know either a nurse or a physician present at Erdogan’s operation, each with a different story. The daily Taraf newspaper this month ran a front-page article about a leaked internal e-mail by analysts at Stratfor, the self-proclaimed global-intelligence company. The e-mail quoted a classmate of Erdogan’s doctor saying the prime minister had only two years to live.
The Taraf story was roundly denied by Erdogan and his physician. I’m no doctor and I don’t claim to know anyone who operated on the prime minister, but Erdogan looks full of vim and vigor to me. He’s back to making his trademark tirades against political opponents, even if he’s traveling less. Still, the uproar has commentators and markets alike wondering about not just Erdogan’s mortality, but that of the tightly centralized system that he has built around him.
That system, whatever its democratic merits, has contributed to an unusual period of political stability and economic growth for Turkey. As a result, the question of what happens if Erdogan leaves or weakens is a big one. Since the rumors surfaced, all but one of the foreign clients I have met have asked me about Erdogan’s health. The one exception had better sources than mine -- perhaps they, too, knew someone who knew Erdogan’s nurse or physician.
If you look at Erdogan’s two mandatory sick leaves as trial runs for what would happen in his absence, you can understand the concern. His first trip to the hospital on Nov. 26 coincided with a proposal to amend Turkish laws that criminalize soccer match fixing, reducing the severity of sentences. This was a life-and-death matter for fans of Turkey’s most successful team, Fenerbahce, whose chairman was at the time behind bars, awaiting trial on a host of match-fixing charges. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and all who were authorized to speak for the ruling Justice and Development Party spoke out against each other on the bill, showing rare public dissent within a normally disciplined party.
Erdogan cut his convalescence short to whip parliament’s confused majority party into shape. He ordered the bill’s ratification by parliament, overriding Gul’s presidential veto.
The second operation, on Feb. 11, coincided with a crisis over the Turkish intelligence services. This was triggered when a special prosecutor for cases involving terrorism summoned Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, and three of his colleagues for questioning on connections they had made -- on Erdogan’s instructions -- with members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK. When Fidan declined the invitation, an arrest warrant was issued. The episode sent shock waves through Turkey because the special prosecutors involved were widely believed to belong to the powerful Fethullah Gulen religious movement, hitherto a close ally of the government. Was this the start of a power struggle?
Once again, Erdogan had to stir himself to corral his forces to pass an act in parliament that forbade any investigation of intelligence-service members, without prior approval from the prime minister. The special prosecutors and several top police officials, also widely assumed to be close to Fethullah Gulen, were reassigned.
All this got people to thinking: What happens if Erdogan runs for president in 2014? Failing a switch of constitutional powers from the prime minister to the president, Erdogan might then have to share power. He might no longer be able to crack the whip over the Cabinet, or rule economic policy. What happens if he gets more ill?
Currently, Erdogan has the undisputed final word on Turkey’s economic policy. He has some very able economic managers in Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy Ali Babacan and Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, technicians who understand the global economy and markets. Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan heads a wing of old-fashioned industrialists who think Turkey can sustain growth rates of 6 percent or 7 percent a year, even with a gaping current-account deficit. And then there is a strong zero-interest-rate lobby, which on religious grounds believes that earning interest is wrong and central-bank rates should therefore be zero.
Erdogan listens to these factions and then calls the shots. His policy choices may look odd sometimes, if you happen to believe in basic economic theory. But the devotion of his followers to execute Erdogan’s decisions and his extraordinary ability to market any policy to the nation have so far made up these weaknesses.
In a potential succession struggle, though, it isn’t clear which economic-policy faction would win. With the current-account deficit running at about 10 percent of Turkey’s gross domestic product, the economy’s extraordinary recent growth record is fragile. The effect of a zero-interest-rate policy on Turkey’s ability to finance its balance-of-payments deficit, for example, doesn’t bear thinking about.
The Justice and Development Party is a coalition of religious conservatives, liberals and others who were brought together by Erdogan’s charisma and a common hatred for Turkey’s old, military-dominated political system. Some of the glue that held this coalition together has now gone, a victim of the ruling party’s success in breaking the military’s political power.
Erdogan has sidelined anyone with the political and organizational skills to challenge him. Regardless of his state of health, it would make sense for Turkey’s strongman to start giving rope to the more talented people in his team, to let them prove their mettle and carve out their own political constituencies. He should also institutionalize a well-defined succession process within the party.
Otherwise, should Erdogan depart, or weaken for whatever reason, the party behind the so-called Turkish model, which seeks to marry Islamic conservatism with a secular state and free market, may not survive to win a fourth election.
(Atilla Yesilada is country adviser for Turkey at GlobalSourcePartners. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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