The latest statements of the Turkish president caused a sensation in the West Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of Local Government Elections: “I am working with all my strength, these elections will be my last”. News agencies are reporting that Erdogan is “announcing his retirement” or that he is “thinking about quitting.”

In Turkey itself, rather mocking comments were heard. “Does he want to stop again?” some people write on social media and wonder how many times the Turkish president has announced his departure so far. Two or three? Maybe four?

Retired since… 2009

Haki Tas, a partner of the Hamburg-based German Institute for International Studies (GIGA), recalls that the Turkish president “in 2009 spoke about the last elections in which he would participate. In 2012 he said he was running for the leadership of his party for the last time. In 2023 he promised that he would seek a popular mandate one last time.”

After each “last time” Erdogan made sure to push his agenda and expand his powers. Today he is stronger than ever. He is the first supreme ruler to hold the presidency of the government at the same time, and in addition remains the head of the ruling AKP party. Consequently, Haki Tas considers that the latest statements are probably a tactical maneuver for an Erdogan who appeals to the emotions of the voters, elicits their trust, wants to mobilize them in the run-up to the elections.

For the last ten years, Turkey has been on permanent pre-election vigilance. Referendums, parliamentary, municipal or presidential elections are held every now and then. Now Erdogan hopes that if he emerges strengthened from the Local Government Elections, he can initiate a revision of the Constitution, regulating his succession. For now, however, he wants his party to win the four major cities of the country (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya), which represent almost 50% of the Turkish GDP.

Battle for the big cities

The most crucial match is expected in Istanbul. Polls point to a “chest-to-chest” duel between the ruling AKP party’s nominee, Murat Kurum, and current mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who was first elected in 2019, is backed by the opposition Kemalist CHP party and is seeking a second term. He is well known in Turkey and is running a successful election campaign.

On the contrary, Kuroum is considered colorless or even unknown, even though he has been Minister of Spatial Planning and Environment for five years. After all, after Erdogan established an executive “super-presidency” system, he is constantly in the spotlight, while ministers play a secondary role. But even in Ankara, the AKP’s dominance will not be a cake walk. The current mayor Mansour Yavas, supported by the Kemalist opposition, is ahead in the polls against the “presidential” candidate Turgut Altinok.

Thus Erdogan is forced to intervene in the election campaign. In his 70s, he “ploughs” Turkey by giving pre-election speeches, as if he himself participated in the ballots. A victory in the major cities would give him a chance to expand his influence again. It is characteristic that after the “changing of the guard” in many town halls in 2019 it became known that the AKP was appointing its own people to the local government. At the same time, he assigned projects to those who honored the party’s rule of law and ensured privileges to pro-government brotherhoods with an Islamist and nationalist orientation.

Who is being anointed as successor?

But if Erdogan did decide to retire, who might succeed him?With his older son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, likely to fail as finance minister, many believe that either his son, Bilal Erdogan, or the other his son-in-law, Seljuk Bayraktar.

The question is whether one of them can lead the party as successfully as Erdogan. For the political scientist Haki Tash, the answer is clear: “Essentially there is no longer a party. There is only Erdogan.”