Turkey power play: Does Davutoğlu exit spell longer term trouble for Erdoğan?

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu played a key role in Turkey's foreign policy and served as a moderating force amid Erdoğan's drive for a more powerful presidency.

Yasin Bulbul/ AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu salute together during a ceremony in Antalya, Turkey April 22, 2016. After long-denied tensions beetween Turkey's president and prime minister, Mr. Davutoglu stepped down May 5.

Just six months after leading his party to a landslide general election victory, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced his resignation Thursday, signaling the deepening dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over Turkey’s political scene.

The resignation followed Mr. Davutoğlu’s public fallout with Mr. Erdoğan over issues ranging from the drafting of a new constitution to Ankara’s refugee deal with the European Union. But, analysts say the main dispute between the longtime allies was over power.

At a press conference following a hastily scheduled meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Davutoğlu announced he will step down and not run in the election of a new party leader, scheduled for May 22.

“I decided that for the unity of the party, a change of chairman would be more appropriate,” he said, while stressing he had “not a single word of criticism” against Erdoğan.

Since first assuming the office of prime minister in August 2014, when Erdoğan vacated it to become president, Davutoğlu sought to assert his independence on a range of issues, setting himself up as a moderating force on Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian bent.

In 2014 he attempted to introduce new anticorruption legislation in defiance of the president, and last year he sought to revive peace talks with Kurdish rebels at a time when Erdoğan no longer desired them.

He has also offered only lukewarm support for Erdoğan’s most cherished goal: rewriting Turkey’s constitution to replace the current parliament-dominated structure with a presidential system that would formalize the shift of power into his own hands.

Behlül Özkan, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Marmara University, says the policy disputes between the two men were not in themselves significant, and that the conflict was “essentially about power.”

“Erdoğan wants to give orders, and for them to be accepted immediately,” he says. “Davutoğlu wanted to change things and put a personal touch on them. Erdoğan said, ‘who are you to do this?’”

On paper, the bulk of executive decision-making in Turkey still lies in the hands of the prime minister, with the presidency a non-political office with limited formal power.

Even though Erdoğan resigned from the AKP after becoming president, he continues to be the talisman of the party in the eyes of most of its supporters and members, and has retained effective control over it – a fact underscored by Davutoğlu’s effective ouster.

Key role in refugee deal

A bookish former international affairs professor, Davutoğlu began his political career as Erdoğan’s foreign policy adviser, becoming foreign minister in 2009. Although he lacked a strong base of domestic political support, he nonetheless acquired an international reputation as the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy.

His departure may complicate Ankara’s already fraught relationship with the United States and the European Union, with whom he had come to be seen as a more measured and conciliatory interlocutor than the pugnacious president.

Hours before the news broke of his expected departure, the EU Commission approved plans to grant Turks visa-free travel as part of a deal in which Turkey is agreeing to help stem the continent’s refugee crisis – negotiations in which Davutoğlu has played a key role.

“Davutoğlu was trying to project an image of being a man the West could deal with,” says Mr. Özkan.

“Now, whoever replaces him will be Erdoğan’s caretaker. The message to the West is that there’s no Davutoğlu now, there’s only Erdoğan, and they have to deal with him whether they like it or not.”

US was prepared

Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., says Davutoğlu’s departure is unlikely to have any serious impact on US-Turkish relations.

“The truth is that from the beginning the US never really dealt with Davutoğlu, they dealt with Erdoğan, because they had decided that that’s where power lies.… In the end I think the Americans knew very well that Davutoğlu was just a sideshow.”

His fall from grace came at the end of a bizarre week that began with the publication Sunday of an article on an anonymous pro-Erdoğan website that castigated Davutoğlu and listed 27 instances in which he had supposedly sought to undermine the president.

Pelikandosyasi, or “Pelican Brief” – a reference to the 1993 political thriller starring Julia Roberts – seized the attention of Turkey’s media amid speculation that it was authored by a journalist close to Erdoğan, and with his blessing.

The two men then met Wednesday night for two hours at Erdoğan’s presidential palace in what was billed as a last-ditch effort to resolve their differences. Soon after, news started to leak of Davutoğlu’s impending resignation.

Trouble for Erdoğan in longer term?

His departure will underscore “the perception of a one-man regime” in Turkey, says Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a former AKP parliamentarian who left office in 2011 and now runs STRATIM, an Ankara-based think tank.

“It won’t have any short-term ramifications within the party,” he added. “Most will remain silent and accept [Erdoğan’s] dominance.”

It may, however, signal trouble for Erdoğan in the longer term. Davutoğlu’s selection as prime minister was widely seen as advantageous for the president, because while lacking enough domestic political support to be a threat to him, Davutoğlu nonetheless commanded a profile that allowed him to be seen as a credible and independent leader of the party in the public’s eyes.

Replacements with those qualities are now thin on the ground, with analysts suggesting the leading contenders are Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, or his long-time loyal enforcer, Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım.

“From now on there is no one in the government or the AKP whom he can blame for failures,” says Özkan. “Everything now is controlled by Erdoğan.”

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