international analysis and commentary

The Turkish Prime Minister’s fall from grace


On May 5, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced he would leave office and his role as the leader the Justice and Development Party (AKP), many months before completing the four-year mandate given to his government after the November 2015 elections. Davutoglu had initially assumed office after Recep Tayyip Erdogan vacated the seat that he had held for 11 years in order to become President. Originally an academician in the field of international relations, Davutoglu began serving as foreign policy advisor to the Prime Ministry in late 2002 and assumed the position of Foreign Minister in 2009. Davutoglu had been very influential in reshaping Turkish foreign policy, known popularly for his concepts such as “strategic depth” and “zero-problems with neighbors”, and worked closely with Erdogan for over a decade. In the end it was precisely the widening gap between his and Erdogan’s thinking that cost him, quite possibly, his political career.

Reasons for the breakup

Though the divide between the two was already an open secret known to many Turkish citizens, they were laid in bare sight by a recent anonymous blog called the “Pelican Brief” – a newcomer in the sea of online sources that supposedly leak inside secrets of the AKP. The blog pointed out several main points of divergence.

For one, Davutoglu and Erdogan disagreed noticeably on how far Turkey’s counterterrorism efforts should extend. It appears that while Erdogan was in favor of expanding the country’s counterterrorism efforts, and broadening the very definition of what constitutes a terrorist act, Davutoglu paid closer attention to (mostly European) criticisms over Turkey’s deteriorating performance on freedom of expression. One example is the case against Turkish academics who signed a petition criticizing the Turkish government on its ongoing counterterrorism operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). President Erdogan argued in favor of prosecuting the academics, calling the signing of the petition treason, and maintained that there was “no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims of terrorists.” Davutoglu publicly stated his opinion  that the academics  should not be held under arrest pending trial,According to the Pelican Brief, Davutoglu believed that had the AKP ignored it, the issue would not escalate into a crisis, to which Erdogan opposed harshly. 

Another point of divergence relating in part to the ongoing counterterrorism efforts had to do with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which hosts the latest representatives of the Kurdish political movement. While Erdogan has been on the forefront of the argument for making constitutional amendments on parliamentary immunity to allow HDP members to be tried on terror charges for their alleged support for the PKK, Davutoglu surprisingly argued for lifting all parliamentary immunities. Such proposals had been opposed strongly by the AKP when they were brought forth during the corruption scandal that rocked the party’s ranks and reached Erdogan and his family members in late 2013. Though unlikely, it was speculated that Davutoglu could utilize such a move to trim down the number of Erdogan loyalists in the AKP ranks. Furthermore, Davutoglu’s argument that Turkey could restart negotiations with the PKK if the terror organization halted its operations and returned to pre-2013 conditions was strongly dismissed by Erdogan, who argued that there was “nothing to negotiate and nothing to discuss” with the PKK. This divergence could also be traced back to the period preceding the June 2015 elections and the collapse of the peace process, when Davutoglu argued it was possible for the Syrian Kurdish group, PYD, to play a role in Syria’s future, which Erdogan swiftly rejected by defining the PYD a terrorist organization due to its ties with the PKK.

Power struggle

Yet the most important factor has been the power struggle between the two figures. Namely, the biggest dispute formulated around President Erdogan’s demand for the transition into a presidential system that would concentrate political power in his hands and Davutoglu’s reluctance to push this agenda forward. When Davutoglu first ascended to the premership succeeding Erdogan, his cabinet consisted of parliamentarians and advisors known for their close ties to Erdogan, suggesting that Davutoglu would work in close harmony with the President and maintain a low-profile as Prime Minister. Yet, over time, especially in light of limited public support and strong resistance from the opposition parties to the presidential system, Davutoglu argued that the debate could be shelved even though the issue remained Erdogan’s top priority. Furthermore, the Prime Minister reportedly attempted to reshuffle the AKP ranks in order to increase his grasp over the party at Erdogan’s expense.

As a matter of fact, all the likely candidates to replace Davutoglu are considered to be ones who would expedite executive decision-making, or in other words, those loyal to Erdogan who would closely follow his bidding. Regardless of whether there will be a referendum to bestow Erdogan with more power, Turkey now enters a period in which it has a de facto presidential system. Yet this development comes at a time when the country is dealing with considerable security, economic, political and diplomatic challenges. The ongoing “deinstitutionalization”, now coupled with the gradual removal of the few remaining opposing voices within the AKP, suggests that Erdogan will have to man the ship alone in such arduous times, which may present further risks for the country.

Davutoglu’s legacy

This challenging security and diplomatic environment will be part of the legacy that Davutoglu leaves behind. His once applauded policies designed to create the conditions for  “zero problems with neighbors” and Turkey’s increased soft power and trade relations with the Middle East had in fact morphed into something very different: there were much criticized components of “neo-Ottomanism” and a reckless revisionist attitude that diverged considerably from the traditionally prudent Turkish foreign policy. As a result, Turkey took brash steps that it could not easily backpedal from, leaving the country with few partners in the region and beyond. As such, the Turkish foreign policy establishment has recently gone through a necessary phase of recalibration and normalization, seeking rapprochements with the states with which it had fallings-out.

In his last term as Prime Minister, Davutoglu enacted several reforms, including those in the labor market, which he listed in detail in his parting speech. Still, it appears that most of the contents of Davutoglu’s agenda, and apparently his tenure, were determined more by Erdogan than by himself. Davutoglu has had to deal with a resurgent PKK and historically high numbers of terror attacks conducted by both Kurdish separatists and ISIS. The “academician Prime Minister” was ultimately unable to move beyond the “securitizing” paradigm in dealing with terrorism, as he had promised. Nor was he able to attain enough support within the AKP to allow him to preserve his parliamentary power. In his parting speech, even though Davutoglu pledged his allegiance to Erdogan and called for the party to stand united, he also noted that he had not assumed the position to be a placeholder and that leaving his seat was not his choice. In the end, after Davutoglu’s resignation, Turkey is left with many political uncertainties, with the only certainty being Erdogan’s strengthened reign over Turkish politics.