Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lashed out at those speculating on his health, saying that only God can determine how much time he has left to live. But behind the sensational headlines lies deeper worries about who might replace the three-term prime minister who has dominated Turkish politics for almost a decade.
Rumours that Erdogan has terminal cancer have abounded since late last year after he was suddenly taken to a medical operation in Istanbul without a prior public announcement. In the months since, multiple surgeries and disappearances from public view have only added to the speculation, even though he publicly denied the rumours in televised interview with veteran Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand.
The latest flare-up in the story occurred after Wikileaks published a leaked email from the security information company Stratfor that claimed he has terminal cancer and just two years left to live. The email said doctors had removed a 20cm part of Erdogan's colon during the first operation on November 26, and had a second procedure in February. The daily Taraf reported the email on their front page.
In response, Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on March 8: "We are [members of] a party that believes in fate... We are a party that took risks to serve our people. This soul belongs to God. God is the only one who can take it back. We did not and do not surrender to threats. Only God can determine the length of our life. ... Those who believe in rumours and speculate on the lifespan of others, for us, are not only daring, but insolent as well."
Turkey has long been a country of weak coalition governments and politicians who are seen as representing only a small part of the population. Erdogan, a charismatic speaker and strong manager of his party, changed that by appealing to different sectors of Turkish society through the combination of his devout Muslim background and nationalist rhetoric. In June, AKP received 50% of the votes in a parliamentary election after eight years of power.
The threat of Erdogan's premature disappearance from politics hangs over Turkey because no other leader is thought to have the popularity or strength to unite the various competing factions that hold power in the country. Already, following the announcement that Erdogan had undergone stomach surgery on November 26, there was a spat within AKP about a bill amending the length of sentences for those convicted as part of a politically-charged football match-fixing scandal. President Abdullah Gul initially vetoed the bill, but Erdogan stepped in to push the bill through parliament, even though he was recovering at home.
While there won't be an opposition party strong enough to challenge AKP in national polls for some time, without Erdogan the party will be far more factionalized, say analysts. Decision-making will be more difficult, and in fighting more pronounced as politicians vey for positions that Erdogan had placed his chosen people in without dissent from the party.
Of course, some of the speculation about Erdogan's health is gleeful. Many in Turkey's opposition would like nothing more than to see the unstoppable Erdogan fall from power, no matter how it happens. Yet for all his autocratic tendencies, Erdogan is widely seen as having increased Turkey's stature in the world and governed a country in the midst of a transition that is far from secure. Without strong leadership, , say some analysts, Turkey could easily slip back into the chaos that dominated it for so much of the last decades, helped along by the conflicts raging within its Middle Eastern neighbours.
Erdogan is often described a street fighter. While the fact that he needed a second surgery in February shows that his condition is likely serious, it is too earlier to write him off. The most popular Turkish leader since Ataturk, Erdogan has long proven himself to hit back hard from challenges put in front of him. Rivals within AKP, and the rest of Turkey, would be foolish to underestimate him now.
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