General elections in Turkey are two years away, but the battle for votes has already begun. Every day, more and more forces join the struggle for political influence in the country that is strategically important for many international players. In addition to internal opposition, even his former allies are in play to eliminate the impulsive and increasingly uncontrollable Erdogan. There’s such attempts undertaken by both the ruling party members and representatives of NATO member states.
Various tools are used in a bid to remove the sitting Turkish president from the political arena. It is not only the failed coup attempt in 2016 or the initiation of anti-government demonstrations in various cities by the population dissatisfied with the economic and social failures of Erdogan’s domestic policies, but even the numerous allegations that are launched both inside Turkey and outside its borders about the Turkish president’s allegedly poor health, as well as doubts about Erdogan’s mental well-being. To create a particular “narrative” about Erdogan’s alleged disabilities, his opponents actively throw in various judgments, illustrated by videos showing him struggling to move his legs and straining to utter words. Rumors mock the president of the republic with alleged epilepsy attacks, difficulty in breathing, facing liver cancer, and suffering mental confusion. He allegedly wears an implanted defibrillator and has mood changes, and his depression and irritability are related to his medication. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that one of Erdoğan’s doctors in 2011 reportedly said that the then Prime Minister had cancer, for which he underwent laparoscopic surgery on his gastrointestinal tract.
As a result of this campaign, there has been a noticeable shift in political attitudes in Turkey recently. According to a recent poll conducted by sociological agency Metropoll, 53.7 % of Turkish voters believe that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will lose its influence as the ruling party in the 2023 general elections. Only 37.8% of the respondents believe that the AKP will remain in power. The AKP turned out to be the party with the most significant drop in voter share in an August poll conducted by Metropoll: the survey found that 37% of undecided citizens were former AKP voters.
According to a Yoneylem poll conducted in September by political scientists, 53% of Turkish citizens have lost faith in the presidential system. Even among supporters of the ruling coalition composed of the AKP and the MHP, support for the presidential system has waned: 47% of citizens don’t trust the President’s Office; only 33% express their trust in it.
The Republican People’s Party, the İYİ (“Good”) Party, the Felicity Party, the Democrat Party, the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the Future Party held a meeting in October on restoring the parliamentary system in Turkey. The political movements are unanimously opposed to the AKP’s rule and are working on a common coalition candidate.
Recently, rumors about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s deteriorating health and speculation that he will not be able to run for president in June 2023 have been circulating in social media and on the front pages of Western publications.
Therefore, Kemal Kılıçdaroglu, the leader of the leading opposition Republican People’s Party, got involved in discussions about the 67-year-old Erdogan’s physical and psychological conditions.
He pointed to the fact that the Turkish leader keeps repeating the same charges against political opponents, prompting him to question the president’s mental well-being.
The fact that the Western elite has firmly disliked the Turkish president is well known, and this explains that it is challenging to find a kind word about Erdogan in the US and EU press. This situation has persisted since the Turkish president refused to follow through with a regime change in Syria in 2015-2016 and moved closer to Russia and Iran.
So it is not surprising that Washington initiated the “smear campaign” about Erdogan’s poor health in October. An article by political commentator Steven Cook in the American magazine Foreign Policy noted that the Turkish leader was even close to surrendering his ambitions to run for president because of several recent incidents. According to the author of the publication, the incidents indicate that Erdogan’s health must have deteriorated significantly. In particular, Steven Cook pointed to several videos shot in recent months showing Erdogan suddenly falling asleep, having difficulty walking, or slurring his words. The Turkish leader’s condition can be so severe that he needs strong painkillers before making public statements.
This signal sent by Washington to actively undermine Erdogan was quickly picked up by the French publication Le Point, always ready to show its loyalty to the US, with its article “Erdogan’s health in question.” In particular, as confirmation of Foreign Policy’s view of the Turkish leader’s allegedly deteriorating health, Le Point points to his sluggish step, indecisive and intermittent speech. In February, he struggled down the stairs, leaning on the arm of his wife, Emine. In August, during a parade at Anıtkabir in Ankara, he seemed to stagger with fatigue under the blazing sun. In the middle of his summer vacation, speaking about the situation in Cyprus, he could not find the words and seemed to be slightly uncomfortable.
According to a report citing the Greek right-wing publication Estia, in mid-October the Turkish news website OdaTV, the British Ambassadors to Greece, Turkey and Cyprus said at a meeting with Greek politicians and media representatives: “Erdogan’s days are numbered, we’re heading towards a change of power without bloodshed…,” after which they initiated a discussion on the current situation in Turkey and the non-bloodshed departure of Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power.
Under the circumstances, deputy chairman of the ruling AKP Numan Kurtulmus and Head of the Public Relations Department of the Presidential Administration of Turkey Fahrettin Altun immediately hastened to deny such “fabrications,” saying “they are clearly falsified.”
Nevertheless, apparently in continuation of a campaign unleashed by Erdogan’s Western opponents, Turkish social media was flooded on November 3 with unconfirmed news that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had allegedly passed away. In a short time, the hashtag “he is dead” (#ölmüş) became trending and topped the list of the most discussed events in the country. Turkish authorities later denied the rumors, publishing video footage of the President at the airport during his departure from Istanbul and arrival to Ankara. The Turkish police has launched an investigation of this incident. There’s a total of 30 suspects that are going to be charged with spreading Twitter posts with the hashtag #olmus (#heisdead).
The Turkish authorities are very responsive to any defamatory reports online about the president and the state. For example, 9,772 people, including 290 minors, were brought before the courts for insulting the Turkish President in 2020. Except for the 14% who had been acquitted, the rest had been convicted under article 299 of the Turkish Criminal Code and sentenced to between one and four years’ imprisonment. In recent years, the most high-profile punitive campaign was the arrests of more than 43,000 people involved in the 2016 coup attempt, with 93,000 being dismissed from the civil service, as announced by Erdogan himself.
The wave of allegedly deteriorating health initiated by Erdogan’s Western opponents have set the stage for discussions about the future of Turkey. Undoubtedly, rumors about Erdogan’s health can play against him, and his party in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023 and conclusively bury their chances of victory, which is precisely what the opponents of the Turkish president are counting on.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.