Speculation swirls over Erdogan’s health

Turkish blogger: It’s an "open secret" premier has cancer; political jostling already begun in Ankara to replace him.

January 5, 2012 01:20
4 minute read.
Turkey's Erdogan with Hamas' Ismail Haniyek

Turkey's Erdogan with Hamas' Ismail Haniyek 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Prime Minister's Press Office/)


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Speculation is mounting that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cancer, and political jostling has already begun in Ankara to replace the rabble-rousing prime minister who is Turkey’s most popular leader since Kemal Ataturk.

Last month Turkish media revealed that Erdogan had had stomach surgery the month before – the reports said doctors had removed polyps from his intestines, but found no traces of cancer.

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The 57-year-old spent several weeks at home recuperating, but President Abdullah Gul, an Erdogan ally, was quick with reassurances the premier remained in good health.

“It was a preventative operation,” Gul said. “There is nothing more normal than someone who has undergone an operation to rest for a while.”

But a Turkish blogger said a physician with ties to the Turkish executive branch told him Erdogan is suffering from colorectal cancer and is under close examination to determine its severity. On the condition of anonymity, the blogger said a respected authority in academia had told him the prime minister was expected to start chemotherapy last month.

The blogger said Turkish media have reported almost nothing about Erdogan’s condition, leaving most Turks totally unaware anything might be wrong. Still, he said, it’s an “open secret” in the Turkish medical community that Erdogan has been diagnosed with cancer.

Last month the Jerusalem-based intelligence website DEBKAfile quoted “Western intelligence sources” as saying Erdogan had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer.

Official Turkish sources have remained tight-lipped. Following Erdogan’s surgery the AKP’s English- language website ran a three-sentence news item headlined “Premier Erdogan says he is fine,” quoting the premier as saying only, “I’m fine and I will be better.”

Erdogan is immensely popular not only in Turkey but around the Muslim world for promoting Islamic values, growing the economy and adopting a hardline foreign policy that is often at odds with Ankara’s former allies Israel and America.

First elected in 2003, Erdogan was reelected in June for a third-straight term after his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won fully half of the national vote.

AKP bylaws, however, prevent candidates from running for parliament for a fourth time. Instead, Erdogan was widely expected to stand for president in the next national elections in 2014, when Gul’s two-term tenure expires. (Like its Israeli counterpart, the Turkish presidency is largely a ceremonial position.) Four senior AKP figures – Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, Economy Minister Ali Babacan and Gul himself – have been named as possible successors.

None of the candidates, however, match Erdogan’s popular appeal: A recent poll conducted by an independent US-based NGO found one-third of Turks would “definitely not” vote for AKP if it were run by anyone other than Erdogan.

“From an electability perspective, there is no one who can replace Erdogan,” the blogger said.

Davutoglu is an erudite former political-science professor fluent in English, German and Arabic, and his piety and sense of Turkish exceptionalism endear him to many conservative voters. Gul boasts leadership experience (he served four years as foreign minister and briefly as premier) who has the backing of the Fethullah Gulen movement, an opaque but powerful Islamist movement led by a US-based religious scholar.

Another potential candidate is Kemal Kılıçdarog˘lu, leader of the Republican People’s Party, an opposition movement known by its Turkish acronym CHP. But despite its venerable legacy – it was founded by Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey – the CHP remains driven by internal divisions that make a challenge to AKP dominance unlikely.

The geopolitical implications of Erdogan’s exit from politics would be immense. US President Barack Obama counts the Turkish premier as both an ally and friend – The New York Times reported the two leaders spoke at least nine times by phone last year, and Washington has often looked to Erdogan as a diplomatic bridge to an Arab world roiled for the past year by popular unrest.

For Israel, meanwhile, change in Ankara can’t come soon enough. Erdogan defended the 2010 Turkish flotilla to Gaza, demanded a public apology for the nine passengers killed in the ensuing Israeli raid and fostered close ties with the Hamas government in the Strip.

This week he welcomed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to his private residence in Istanbul and later accompanied him into a parliamentary session in Ankara.

Erdogan reiterated the unyielding positions that have become his hallmark – Hamas, he said, is not a terrorist group but “freedom fighters protecting their land.”

Images from the meeting showed him looking pale and gaunt.

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