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President Tayyip Erdoğan (L) announces a 320 billion cubic meters of natural gas discovery in the Black Sea at a meeting in Istanbul, as Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak (C) and Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez join him via video conference. ( Photo: TCCB / Murat Çetinmühürdar – Anadolu Ajansı )

While watching President Tayyip Erdoğan announcing at a ceremony the natural gas discovery in the Black Sea, I also had the impression that we are witnessing the ceremony for the announcement of a successor to him. Of course, neither Erdoğan is the sultan nor his son-in-law and Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak is the crown prince. The Turkish Constitution still says that we still live in a secular, democratic social state of law. I was focused on the details of Turkey’s largest-ever natural gas discovery but I also had two other matters in mind, one of them was this successor issue and another one that I will discuss below.

But, with a phone call from a source from the business world, I realized that I was not the only one who thought the president might have pointed to Albayrak as his successor, the person he wanted to succeed him. “Have you noticed?” asked the source, who closely watches such meetings and occasionally attends them. “This is the first time I witness Mr. Tayyip Erdoğan pause his speech and wait for someone else to finish his.” He was not speaking of Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez, but Albayrak. The energy minister had already delivered his speech.

Energy minister stays in shadow in energy project

We had also never witnessed Erdoğan praising anyone else so much before. He said Turkey’s new energy strategy was initiated by Albayrak during his tenure as the energy minister in 2017. (As a matter of fact, when Erdoğan merged the Treasury and Finance ministries and appointed Albayrak to head it in 2018, he also appointed Dönmez, the undersecretary of Albayrak, as the energy minister.) Not only Erdoğan but politicians in general do not tend to admit that a bright idea actually does not belong to her or himself. And the energy minister, who should be the owner of the project, was not in a lead but a support role at the event starred by Albayrak

While the energy minister, who should have been the owner of the project, almost remained in a side role, Albayrak starred the event.

The timing of the event was also important. Erdoğan’s praises for Albayrak come at a time when he is under constant and strong criticism for the crisis over the Turkish Lira’s sharp losses against foreign currencies and other troubles in the economy. The spread of wrong information on the natural gas discovery – as a result of yet another communication fiasco the amount of the discovery was leaked as 800 billion cubic meters, not the real 320 billion – failed to ease the lira, even fueling the problem. (Ahead of Erdoğan’s announcement on the good news, the U.S. dollar traded for 7.22 liras, before climbing to 7.36 liras when this article was penned).

Thus, it was natural to interpret Erdoğan’s highlighting Albayrak at the ceremony on Aug. 21 as something further than support, a move that shows that the president sees the minister as his successor.

What will the AK Party say?

It can easily be assumed that Erdoğan does not consider Albayrak a successor for the presidency. Of course, Erdoğan knows that even if he and Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the election partner of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) nominate Albayrak, there will be serious vote losses from both parties. Some columnists close to the presidential palace have been speculating that Erdoğan might not run for the AKP leadership at the next party congress, which has been postponed to 2021; we will soon see whether it is true or not. However, it can be said that the probability of it increased after the Aug. 21 gas ceremony. But, would the AKP grassroots, or the party delegates who listen to every word Erdoğan says, elect Albayrak without questioning it just because Erdoğan pointed to him? Who do the AKP voters want to lead the AKP after Erdoğan. There are studies on this issue. However, I cannot quote one of them because the university that conducted it has already thrown it away, thinking that the answer to the question on “the most favorite minister” would give them trouble; I was informed about it on the condition that I would not write about it. (This also tells about the state of the universities.)

However, although it was not made public, I received one of the reports that the MetroPoll research company sent to its subscribers in the business world.

Choice of the AKP mass is Soylu

When I called MetroPoll General Manager Özer Sencar, he said “It is not a report we have disclosed to the public,” and it was enough for me.

It was conducted between April 20 and 25 to reflect the pulse of Turkey as of the end of April 2020. The participants were asked whether if they would vote for someone else then Erdoğan as the AKP head.

The graphic above in Turkish shows that support for someone else than Erdoğan heading the AKP has increased from 2019 to 2020.

The participants were also been about who would lead the party.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu is clearly ahead. The situation of Health Minister Fahrettin Koca can be considered as a leap of recognition due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The resignation of the Interior Minister of that month and his decision to remain in his seat following the public requests by both President Erdoğan and MHP leader Bahçeli can be seen as an element in support for him. However, Soylu is on the rise and on a list of the most popular politicians in questions that are not asked only to the AKP grassroots.

Soylu, Albayrak or someone else?

The results show that Interior Minister Soylu has achieved a level of approval that extends beyond the AKP’s grassroots. On the other hand, Albayrak’s level of approval that does not even fully cover the AKP voter base. Under these circumstances, observers who are not familiar with politics may find it reasonable for Erdoğan to hand the party leadership to Soylu if he wants not to run for the post for another term. Or it could be AKP Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş, who sends warm messages to the Saadet Party, the rather smaller Islamist party,  and the Islamist circles, even though he has irked even some of the AKP supporter women with his statements on the Istanbul Convention or similar remarks on women rights. Another option is another “elderly from the party”, such as former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım – who had to leave his seat early due to the early transition to the Presidential Governmental System and his candidacy for İzmir mayor at the local elections – taking over the party. It is known that powerful politicians keep those who join their movement late close to them, make the most of them, but do not trust them enough to hand their seats. It is known that Soylu had strongly criticized Erdoğan in the DYP-Democrat Party and Kurtulmuş did the same in the Has Party, before joining the AKP. On the other hand, there is Albayrak, with all his mistakes and relatively lower approval both in the society and the AKP, but who feels the confidence of being a family member.

And the other issue

We said above that there was one more question. It is about comments that Erdoğan would never want to quit presidency at all if handed over the AKP leadership to Albayrak or someone else. This means he might want to bring up a regulation that will keep him in power as long as his health permits without losing an election, or even holding one. Do not say it is impossible. Think of things that happened in Turkey and the world, which people used to think impossible. Maybe you would expect from Russian President to introduce regulations to stay in power until 2036, that is practically as long as he is alive. But would you expect a U.S. president to bring up a regulation to allow him for a third term? Donald Trump did it. It is the AKP’s problem whether Albayrak, Soylu, Binali Yıldırım or another “elderly” among the members of its High Advisory Board succeeds Erdoğan as the party leader. But the second question is binding for all of us. I hope that scenario does not come true and – on time or snap – the next election will be held within the framework of fair, democratic rivalry rules.