Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: The fall of Davutoglu

Before his removal last week, the Turkish prime minister had given indications that his policies were more pro-Western than those of the country’s president, writes David Barchard

Al-Ahram Weekly

Seldom has any political leader anywhere suffered such an extraordinary swing in his fortunes in a single day. Last Wednesday morning, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, learnt that his stubborn bargaining with the European Union over an agreement to curb the flow of refugees from Turkey into Europe had secured a prize no previous Turkish government had been able to obtain: visa liberalisation allowing Turks with biometric passports to travel freely in the Schengen area from next month.

But there was no time for celebrations. By then Davutoglu knew that his job as prime minister was in jeopardy as he had fallen from favour with Turkey’s powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After a meeting with Erdogan later in the day, lasting one hour and 40 minutes, Davutoglu knew for sure that he was to be dismissed.

He planned to reveal the news formally at a meeting of the ruling AKP Party’s central committee on Thursday morning. Within a few hours of the meeting, however, authoritative sources, presumably close to the presidential palace, let it be known that Davutoglu’s time in office was over.

The party would be calling a special congress over the next three or four weeks to elect a new leader, and Davutoglu would not be standing for election, they said. So on Thursday morning it remained only for Davutoglu to confirm the news, add that the conference would take place on 22 May, and bid farewell to his colleagues without answering any questions.

It all added up to a picture of exceptional humiliation for a prime minister who only six months ago had won nearly half the country’s votes at a general election. Even if he did not succeed in his attempts at generating personal charisma, Davutoglu is agreed to have been a capable pair of hands who made few mistakes if any during his 20 months in office.

Davutoglu’s error, if there was one, was that he did not accommodate himself sufficiently to the increasingly “ultra-presidential” style of Erdogan. Though the law on the Turkish presidency has not been changed, and in theory the office is still a non-executive figurehead position, in practice Erdogan runs Turkey from the presidential palace. All key decisions are taken there and teams of officials monitor the work of individual ministries.

As prime minister, Davutoglu worked along the parliamentary and ministerial lines of his predecessors. Indeed, like most of the AKP’s old guard he quietly resisted the idea of an executive presidency for as long as he could, declaring his support for it only at the end of March last year, six months after Erdogan had arrived at the presidential palace.

With power increasingly concentrated around the president personally, and political influence held largely by a group of Erdogan’s advisers and friends who have easy access to him, tensions between the president and the prime minister were inevitable.

Davutoglu had little chance of countering this difficulty directly, but he did display some signs of trying to build up a personal following, for instance by creating a block of four small newspapers that was personally loyal to him. He also gave tiny but clear indications that his personal policy line was more conventional, more pro-Western, as the Erdogan camp saw it, than that of the presidential palace.

In a less personal system, all this might not have amounted to very much, but in Ankara today it appeared close to defiance.

Signs of the president’s displeasure at Davutoglu mounted quickly last week. Though he is chairman of the ruling AKP, last weekend he was stripped of the right to appoint its provincial officers. Davutoglu tried to discuss this with Erdogan but was brushed aside.

Then came a mysterious Internet posting, apparently by a writer close to the Erdogan camp, that accused the prime minister of serial disloyalty to the president, including friendly links with the US and the West and even of a meeting with the UK Economist magazine.

Worst of all, Davutoglu had indicated last year that he favoured a vote in the Turkish parliament to condemn at least some members of a group of ministers under investigation for corruption. There was also speculation in the Turkish media that Erdogan was furious that US President Barack Obama seemingly had snubbed him but showed more willingness to communicate with Davutoglu.

More important than all this, however, seems to be the desire to speed up the introduction of a new political system in Turkey in which all the reins of power are firmly concentrated in the hands of the president. There will now be a new prime minister, but the three names being mentioned, Binali Yildirim, the transport minister, Berat Albayrak, the energy minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law, and Mustafa Sentop, an AKP veteran, would all work much more closely with the president than Davutoglu did.

If there is a new leader, then will there also be new general elections, perhaps linked to giving a new presidential constitution a popular mandate? So far the AKP leadership has indicated very firmly that it is against holding elections before they fall due in 2019. However, some pundits are already predicting that the AKP under its new leader may change its mind and go for early elections.

The time might be suitable. The opposition is in disarray, with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at loggerheads over a deeply unpopular leader who refuses to go, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP) pulverised politically by the war in southeastern Turkey and now facing the likely prosecution and imprisonment of its main parliamentary leadership on terrorism charges brought by the government.

Davutoglu is likely to remain in the political wilderness after stepping down from office. Apart from his time in government, he will be remembered for his writings on “strategic depth” which promoted a vision of turning Turkey into a global superpower with “zero problems with its neighbours”.

During Davutoglu’s time at the helm as foreign policy-maker, however, Turkey became locked into the civil war in Syria, received an influx of over two million refugees, and apart from a few friends such as Saudi Arabia is deeply isolated internationally.

The writer has worked in Turkey as a journalist and university teacher and writes regularly on Turkish politics and society.

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