Turkey's Erdogan Discards a Prime Minister Who Dared to Disagree With Him

Ahmet Davutoglu is the latest casualty in the Turkish president’s quest to change the constitution and expand presidential power.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkey's then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu greet their supporters as they leave Friday prayers in Ankara, Turkey, August 22, 2014.
Turkey's then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu greet their supporters as they leave Friday prayers in Ankara, Turkey, August 22, 2014. Credit: Umit Bektas / Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Don’t forget how you got this job,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan taunted his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Wednesday, shortly before they held a long meeting after which Davutoglu decided to resign. Davutoglu did not need that reminder; he and Erdogan both know that he owes his political career to Erdogan and not the party. In two weeks, when the Justice and Development Party’s central forum convenes to choose a new party leader, Davutoglu does not intend to run.

It is still not clear who will replace him as prime minister. Among the candidates are Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law, and Transportation Minister Binali Yldrm, but Erdogan might bring in a party back-bencher. From Erdogan’s point of view this is not a dramatic step. He didn’t even try to dissuade Davutoglu from resigning. After all, when Erdogan needed someone to replace him as prime minister — after being elected president — he sought someone who would be obedient, submissive and loyal. That was also the reason that Davutoglu, who lacked a broad power base, was appointed party chairman, so that through him Erdogan could direct party affairs and at the same time appear as the president of all Turks.

It turned out that Davutoglu, a prominent professor of political science who was political adviser to Erdogan when he was president, was not completely captivated by Erdogan. Davutoglu is the father of the “zero problems with the neighbors” policy, which was intended to bring Turkey closer to the Arab Middle East, reconcile with Greece, maintain close ties with Israel and at the same time, with Iran. But Davutoglu opposed Erdogan’s attempt to change the regime in Turkey by expanding the executive powers of the presidency. In some of Davutoglu’s statements he revealed a lack of enthusiasm for Erdogan’s idea of altering the constitution. Neither did he see eye to eye with the president’s policy of facing off against and obstructing the media.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, right, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pose for a photo in Ottoman-era Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Saturday, March 19, 2016. Credit: AP, Halil Sagirkaya

Davutoglu did build himself a good name vis a vis ties with Washington and the leaders of the Arab world and Iran, and he worked for reconciliation with Israel. But friction with Erdogan grew and reached a peak in the last party congress when the party (as directed by Erdogan) refused to grant Davutoglu the authority to appoint the heads of the party’s branches throughout the country. Davutoglu clearly realized that his stock was now worthless. And so he joins other senior party officials who have been removed, politely or less politely, from the front lines of leadership. Among them is former President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s partner who lost his luster after criticizing Erdogan over the Gezi Park protests in 2014 and expressing his opposition to a presidential regime.

It may be assumed that Erdogan will try to pin the failures of Turkey’s foreign policy on Davutoglu. Among them are the rift with Egypt and inability to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop the massacre in Syria, which led to a total breakdown in the relationship between Turkey and Syria and hostility, as well as renewed fighting, with the Kurds. But in all of these instances it was Erdogan who dictated policy and oversaw its implementation. In contrast, the agreement signed with the European Union to stem the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe, is mostly Davutoglu’s achievement.

His departure is not expected to impact Erdogan’s standing and power or spark a rebellion in the party. Although Erdogan has political rivals, they cannot at this time stop his campaign to change the constitution or offer an alternative to his presidency, which still has at least five years to go.

Supporters listen to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a rally of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015.Credit: AP

To change the presidency into an executive office with greater powers, Erdogan needs a majority of 330 out of the 550 members of parliament to present a new constitution in a referendum, and he needs 367 members of parliament to obviate the need for a referendum. The Justice and Development Party has only 316 seats. It cannot at the moment realize Erdogan’s aspiration. So he might call for early elections, for the second time in the past 12 months, to try to achieve the necessary majority.

Senior members of the party said Thursday that the party does not intend to hold another election, but the final decision is Erdogan’s.

After the elections last June in which the party garnered only 258 seats, which meant it could not have a one-party government, Erdogan decided to hold new elections in November. Davutoglu was asked to try to form a coalition but Erdogan stymied his efforts in order to hold the early elections. Thus Erdogan’s decision on whether to hold new elections depends on how much public support he thinks he has and how many seats he believes he can attain in parliament.

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