Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Power over Policy: Erdoğan’s Overthrow of Davutoğlu

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins

May 11, 2016

Ahmet Davutoğlu has left as he came, not in response to popular demand but at President Erdoğan’s behest.  Apparently unsighted by his unfailing self-belief, Davutoğlu was caught unprepared when Erdoğan made his move. The overthrow of Davutoğlu has demonstrated the naivety of the EU’s policy of appeasement. The EU officials believed that by focusing on Davutoğlu, they were strengthening him politically as a counterweight to Erdoğan. This may have been naïve, self-serving or both. It was certainly not true. But it did reinforce Erdoğan’s suspicions of Davutoğlu. 


 Ahmet Davutoğlu first came to the attention of the future leaders of the AKP during the late 1990s while he was teaching at Istanbul’s Marmara University and started writing a weekly column for the pro-Islamist daily Yeni Şafak. What caught their eye was not so much Davutoğlu’s Ottoman nostalgia or his advocacy of the unification of the Muslim world under Turkish leadership but the academic language in which he articulated them, including referencing Western sociologists and political scientists. In 2001, Davutoğlu provided a more detailed exposition of his ideas in his book Stratejik Derinlik, or “Strategic Depth”. For many in the AKP, its nearly six hundred pages of glutinous prose was seen as endowing their vision of themselves as the past and future leaders of the Muslim world with the frisson of intellectual validation.

The resultant elevation in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s prestige within the party meant that, after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was appointed prime minister in March 2003, Davutoğlu became his chief foreign policy adviser. In May 2009, he was made foreign minister.

Erdoğan is abrasive, autocratic and often crudely direct – more interested in whether others comply than whether they are convinced. Davutoğlu is less assertive in character and more self-controlled, preferring to teach rather than simply order – even if he always remains supremely confident of the correctness of his views. But there is little difference between the two men in terms of their ideological convictions and their view of the world as being divided on religious grounds, with Muslims in inexorable opposition to non-Muslims. Both also share a sense of being on a historic mission – even if Davutoğlu seems to regard himself more as an instrument of a sacred cause, while for Erdoğan it appears to have become personalized to the point of embodiment.

Davutoğlu’s appointment as foreign minister came at a time when Erdoğan was looking to extend his authority beyond Turkey’s borders, starting in the Middle East. However, far from creating a sphere of Turkish influence, the two men’s often overweening attitude and their failure to understand the shifting complexities of the region resulted merely in Turkey’s growing isolation.

The two men responded in different ways. Davutoğlu’s appeared unflappably unaware that his foreign policy had failed, continuing to insist that Muslims throughout the world were still looking to Turkey for leadership. Whereas, particularly since 2013, Erdoğan has increasingly blamed any failure on a Western conspiracy in an attempt to prevent Turkey’s otherwise inexorable rise to pre-eminence under his leadership. As a result, rather than eroding his self-belief, each setback seems only to reinforce it.

Although his perceived intellectualism meant that Davutoğlu was respected by AKP voters, his support lacked depth – particularly when compared with the visceral devotion of hard-core Erdoğan loyalists. However, by early 2014, with Turkey’s foreign relations in disarray, AKP officials were privately complaining that it was time for Davutoğlu to step down from his post.

In the run-up to the March 2014 local elections, Erdoğan lost his voice. Davutoğlu briefly stepped in to replace him. Although he lacks Erdoğan’s punchy vigor and imposing physical presence, Davutoğlu nevertheless tried to imitate his hectoring rhetorical style as he harangued public rallies of AKP supporters. Erdoğan was impressed. In August 2014, when he was looking for someone to succeed him as AKP leader and prime minister following his own election to the presidency, Erdoğan chose Davutoğlu.

A poll of AKP officials had suggested that Davutoğlu was, at best, the third most popular candidate to succeed Erdoğan. But this worked in his favor. Anyone too popular might be able to challenge Erdoğan’s dominance of the AKP. Ideologically sound and apparently able to work a crowd, Davutoğlu was seen by Erdoğan as someone who could win the AKP a fourth successive election victory – and then diligently work to change the Turkish constitution, introduce a presidential system and formally concentrate all political power in Erdoğan’s own hands.

Not that Erdoğan was prepared to leave anything to chance. In the run-up to the June 7, 2015 election, he campaigned energetically for the AKP. But it proved counterproductive. Although Erdoğan’s core support remained firm, other former AKP voters were alarmed by what many openly described as his dictatorial ambitions. On June 7, 2015, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. Although he succeeded in forcing a fresh election on November 1, 2015, this time Erdoğan did not campaign – and the AKP regained its parliamentary majority, winning nearly half of the popular vote.

IMPLICATIONS: Through 2015, rumors began to circulate that Erdoğan was having doubts – not about whether Davutoğlu would actively oppose him but the degree to which he would do what he was told, particularly when it came to introducing a presidential system. In the run-up to the June 2015 election, Davutoğlu demonstrated an unwelcome independent streak by trying to choose the AKP candidates. At the AKP Ordinary Congress on September 12, 2015, Erdoğan responded by ensuring that his own loyalists dominated the elections to the party’s fifty-member National Executive.

Through late 2015 and into early 2016, signs of more differences began to appear. Whereas Davutoğlu appeared to be ready to countenance a return to talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) provided that certain conditions were fulfilled, Erdoğan repeatedly insisted that there could be no talks under any conditions. In January 2016, when 1,100 academics signed a petition criticizing the Turkish state’s conduct of its war with the PKK, Erdoğan demanded that they be immediately imprisoned pending their trial. Davutoğlu commented that they should remain free while their trial continued.

Commencing in October 2015, the EU started to mute its criticism of Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism for fear of jeopardizing cooperation with Turkey to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Once negotiations began in earnest, EU leaders opted to engage primarily with Davutoğlu rather than Erdoğan. This enabled them to deflect accusations of appeasement whenever they met directly with Erdoğan. Privately, EU officials also assured journalists that, by focusing on Davutoğlu, they were strengthening him politically as a counterweight to Erdoğan. This may have been naïve, self-serving or both. It was certainly not true. But it did reinforce Erdoğan’s suspicions of Davutoğlu.

In March 2016, after concluding a provisional agreement about the Syrian refugee crisis, Davutoğlu boasted that he had cleverly extracted a string of concessions from the EU, including a promise to lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens visiting the Schengen Area from June 2016. From Erdoğan’s perspective, more important than whether or not the EU would deliver visa free travel, was that Davutoğlu had publicly portrayed himself as being solely responsible for negotiating on Turkey’s behalf. Regardless of the outcome, it was a challenge to Erdoğan’s perception of himself as the ultimate arbiter of government policy.

In reality, the EU’s pledge of visa free travel was corralled with conditionality, including the requirement that Turkey fulfill – including implementing rather than merely legislating -- 72 separate criteria. Nevertheless, the European Commission announced that it would issue a decision on Turkey’s compliance with the criteria on May 4, 2016. In fact, the Commission could only issue a non-binding recommendation which left the final decision to the European Parliament and the member states. Given that the EU was desperate to ensure Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the refugee flow, this made it easy for officials to quietly confirm that – when it came – the recommendation would be positive.

On April 19, 2016, the Turkish media reported that Davutoğlu was planning a visit to Washington, including a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on May 5. As prime minister and then as president, Erdoğan had always monopolized relations with the White House. Davutoğlu’s planned trip to the United States was seen not just as a challenge to Erdoğan’s authority but an encroachment on one of his personal prerogatives.

Apparently unsighted by his unfailing self-belief, Davutoğlu was caught unprepared when Erdoğan made his move. On April 29, Davutoğlu arrived at a meeting of the AKP’s National Executive Committee and was presented with a proposal – signed by forty seven of its members – to strip him of the authority to name provincial and sub-provincial party heads. Davutoğlu meekly added his own signature. Later the same day, AKP officials confirmed that Davutoğlu’s planned visit to the U.S. had been cancelled. On May 1, a four thousand-word diatribe against Davutoğlu appeared on the internet and quickly went viral. Entitled “Pelican Brief,” the tract was clearly written by someone from Erdoğan’s inner circle and bluntly accused Davutoğlu of betraying and conspiring against the president. On May 5, Davutoğlu announced that the AKP would hold an extraordinary party congress on May 22 to elect a new leader and prime minister -- and that he would not be a candidate.

CONCLUSIONS: Davutoğlu has left as he came, not in response to popular demand but at Erdoğan’s behest. Although he has vowed to remain a member of parliament, his political career is effectively over. The identity of his successor is currently unclear but she or he will be handpicked by Erdoğan and almost certainly be the sole candidate at the AKP congress. Nor is there any doubt that the primary qualification for the position will be not ability but servility. Whoever takes office as Turkey’s next prime minister, it will be Erdoğan who is in power.

The overthrow of Davutoğlu has demonstrated the naivety of the EU’s policy of appeasement. Some parts of the deal agreed by the EU and Davutoğlu will probably survive or be renegotiated. The EU still needs to address the Syrian refugee issue. Turkey still needs assistance in dealing with the refugees already in the country. But neither the entire March 2016 deal nor the promise of visa free travel to the Schengen Area is likely to be implemented.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, Erdoğan is unlikely to push for an early election. He will be mindful of what happened in June 2015 and will want to see sustained polling data showing that the AKP under its new leader is likely to win a substantial parliamentary majority before he risks going to the polls. Without an election, there appears little prospect of an imminent end to Turkey’s spiraling descent into instability. Erdoğan argues that he needs more power in order to solve Turkey’s problems. But the evidence suggests that, the more power he has, the deeper those problems become.

Internationally, Erdoğan’s credibility had already collapsed long before he ousted Davutoğlu. It will not return. Events in the region will ensure that international engagement with Turkey continues, albeit out of necessity and with distaste – leaving Turkey neither isolated nor fully included.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.


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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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