ISTANBUL–Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week took another big step towards the strong executive presidency he has been pressing for since 2008. The sacking of Ahmet Davutoğlu, prime minister and leader of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) since August 2014, looks set to be a turning point in the country’s political and constitutional life, even though as yet nothing has actually changed on paper.
Three names are being circulated as possible replacements – one of them being the son in law of the president. None looks likely to have a political power-base distinct from that of President Erdoğan: one being a close friend and another his son-in-law, now energy minister. As happened in 2014, President Erdoğan will probably handpick his choice, a single candidate who will then be voted in by the AKP membership at a special party conference on May 22.
Though the AKP spokesmen say the party is not considering holding fresh general elections, some observers in Ankara predict that it may yet do so in an attempt to get the voter backing needed to give President Erdoğan his presidential constitution. With all three opposition parties in very serious disarray, the AKP may now be able to get the 400 seats in parliament which it failed to do in June 2015. That would enable it to push through a new constitution without holding a potentially much more risky referendum.
Does Davutoglu’s fall matter?
How far does the dropping of Davutoğlu matter? On most points of Turkish foreign policy and in other areas, probably relatively little. Erdoğan already takes all key decisions and Davutoğlu’s role was confined to nuances in the actual application of policy.
Both men are pious Islamic religious conservatives: at election times Davutoğlu’s supporters greeted him with the call to prayer ‘Allahu akbar” and he has close links with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, one reason for his unfaltering support for the anti-Assad opposition in the civil war in Syria. What he did not share was Davutoğlu’s administrative pragmatism and very slight hints that, if allowed to operate on his own, he might have acted in a more conciliatory fashion. Advisers around Erdoğan, a tight cluster of hardline supporters in the presidential palace, want tougher more uncompromising policies and in particular to see Turkey emerging as the leader of the Islamic world in a partnership with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They do not understand the need for flexibility and concessions which Davutoğlu seems to have perceived.
Signs that Davutoğlu was on the way out have been growing steadily over the last ten days with anonymous accusations on the Internet from AKP insiders that he was “disloyal” to the president. Last weekend, Davutoğlu was stripped of the power to control appointment of AKP provincial chiefs across the country. On Wednesday evening he was dismissed by the president. No grounds have been given but it seems that Davutoğlu’s face no longer fitted the monolithic style favored by Erdoğan for executive presidential rule. Erdoğan’s supporters have indicated that when Turkey does move to a presidential system, the office of prime minister is likely to be dropped. Moves to set up the executive machinery needed to run the country via the president are believed to be well under way with teams of civil servants inside the presidential palace, shadowing each government ministry and perhaps preparing to take over control of them when the time comes.
Victim of strong presidency
To survive, Davutoğlu needed to recognize that the day of parliamentary cabinet government is over in Turkey and adapt to the emerging new reality of a strong presidency. But the machinery of government inherited from Turkey’s republican past probably made this difficult to do in practice. It also seems to have encouraged him to make the fatal mistake of trying to build up his own support base. Though Davutoğlu possessed far too little personal charisma or a power base ever to be a potential rival to Erdoğan, his attempts to create a small loyalist following in the press and some universities seem to have irked his critics in the presidential palace.
When prime ministers are dropped by presidents in most countries, words of appreciation and thanks are usually uttered no matter what the underlying sentiments may be. There was nothing of that sort in the dropping of Davutoğlu — even though the prime minister went out of his way on Thursday when announcing his departure to stress his loyalty both to the AKP and to President Erdoğan. After briefing against him, palace sources remained stonily silent. Turkey has apparently entered a period where even the slightest deviation from the leader’s line counts as punishable disloyalty.