by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 4, Sha'ban, 1437)
Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan is ruthlessly ambitious. He is prepared to crush anyone that gets in his way to grab more power. The latest victim is his long-time associate Ahmet Davutoglu.
When Ahmet Davutoglu arrived to attend the AKP congress on May 22, he was only the ceremonial prime minister of Turkey by then. After the coup d’état orchestrated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his close advisors, launched in late April, Davutoglu was practically out of a job he had held for 21 months when Erdogan decided to become president.
Davutoglu was certainly not pleased with his ouster nor the manner of it. In fact, his bitterness was noticeable even if out of a sense of loyalty and perhaps gratefulness, he was careful not to give the impression that there was discord within the ranks of the party. So he attended the AKP congress, or rather his political funeral, with utmost stoicism. He delivered a farewell speech that softly registered his disappointment with his removal from office. But at the end of the day everything was over.
The AKP delegates nominated Binali Yildirim as the new leader of the party. He had served as Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communications in the Davutoglu cabinet. It was Erdogan’s decision to nominate Davutoglu to the prime ministerial post when he became president. Davutoglu was not the favoured candidate of the party grassroots — former President Abdullah Gul was much more popular within the party — but Erdogan considered Davutoglu the most suitable replacement due to his reliability, loyalty, and lack of charisma. This can be a plus when the boss wants only yes-men around.
When Erdogan assumed the mantle of president, he needed someone reliable and trustworthy to entrust the party’s leadership and affairs to and Davutoglu was his first choice. There were more prominent members of the AKP who had more support within the ranks of the party as well as among the general public but Erdogan did not trust them. They could potentially challenge his authority in the party when he would be away in the presidency.
Davutoglu was not a politician in the traditional mould and he owed his entire political career to Erdogan. Before Erdogan invited him to join the AKP in 2003, Davutoglu was an academic and had not had any political experience. Until then he had served as advisor to Erdogan; then with his strong backing, Davutoglu became a member of parliament and foreign minister. In light of these favours, Davutoglu had a strong sense of loyalty and gratefulness toward Erdogan. Thus, it was very unlikely that he would conspire against his benefactor. Further, during these years, Davutoglu gained personal reputation as a clean politician. Unlike many senior AKP members, his name was not tainted with corruption allegations.
During his tenure as foreign minister and later as prime minister, Davutoglu remained loyal to Erdogan. He performed his job efficiently by winning two general elections. In the last election in November 2015, under Davutoglu’s leadership the AKP secured 49% of the vote. This was seen as a remarkable achievement for him. This success naturally strengthened his popularity. With his increasing popularity inside the party and the public, Davutoglu wanted more powers. This inevitably led to tensions between the two men.
There were a number of other points of tension between the two but the most important issue was Davutoglu’s reluctance to back the presidential system that Erdogan so desperately wanted because he was now the president. Erdogan has been pushing hard to change the current parliamentary system into a presidential one so that he can grab all powers in his hand and become the ultimate authority in Turkey, in short the new Ottoman sultan. It is revealing that it was Erdogan who had reduced presidential powers when he was prime minister. For his point of view, power must gravitate with the person and should not be based on a set of principles. If the constitution gets in the way, then the constitution must be changed. This is what he plans to do now.
Based on reports that have appeared in the pro-Erdogan media (which now constitutes almost 90% of the entire Turkish media outlets) Davutoglu has been blocking Erdogan’s presidential dreams for a long time. Further, within the last few months, Davutoglu developed very warm relations with the US and EU. While he reached a very promising agreement (albeit a cruel one for the Syrian people) with the EU on the return of refugees, he also managed to secure a meeting with President Barack Obama that Erdogan tried very hard to achieve and in the end only got an unofficial meeting during the nuclear summit in Washington in April.
Davutoglu’s efforts caused worry for Erdogan for two reasons: first, Davutoglu’s “successes” increased his popularity in the eyes of the public and this was unacceptable to Erdogan. Since the AKP’s founding, Erdogan is the one who has led the party to its electoral “successes.” He treats the party as personal property and nobody else should be allowed to snatch it away from him. Second, Erdogan knows well that the US and the EU have always influenced Turkish politics and have on occasions even initiated coups. Therefore, he got suspicious that Davutoglu’s warm relations with the US and EU could eventually lead to his removal from office.
These two major concerns led him to orchestrate a textbook coup d’état. The “palace coup” against Davutoglu was initiated on April 29 by first curbing Davutoglu’s executive powers as the leader of the party. The AKP’s central executive committee, at Erdogan’s instigation, stripped Davutoglu’s power to appoint or dismiss provincial heads of the party. It is well known that Erdogan was annoyed with Davutoglu’s decision to remove certain provincial party heads that he favored. The party took great pains to downplay the implication of the event but on the next day, a blog post entitled “Pelican Brief” (Pelican Dosyasi) exposed the gravity of the situation.
The unsigned blog post lambasted Davutoglu and his close associates for their “hidden agenda” to undermine Erdogan’s authority in the AKP and it went so far as to declare them as traitors. The post pointed out 27 areas of conflict between Davutoglu (referred to as hoca or master) and Erdogan (referred to as reis or chief). It is widely believed that the blog post played a part in the plot against Davutoglu. It is almost certain that the blog was published with Erdogan’s approval or encouragement. A study on twitter to trace the source of the blog pointed to pro-Erdogan journalists. Further, Erdogan has remained silent in the face of allegations that the blog was initiated by him or had his blessings.
After the blog post it has become clear that Erdogan pulled the carpet from under Davutoglu’s feet and soon thereafter, the latter announced there would be an emergency congress of the AKP to elect a new leader. Prior to the congress it was almost certain that the new leader and prime minister would be Binali Yildirim, one of the most trusted allies of Erdogan. Yildirim has been working with Erdogan for nearly 20 years and is known to have pledged unquestioned loyalty to the boss. He is known as a hardworking and successful minister but his leadership skills are not comparable to those of Erdogan or Davutoglu.
Most importantly, Yildirim and his family are known to be corrupt. Since the AKP rose to power, the Yildirim family company has accumulated vast amounts of wealth whose source remains unclear. Further, on April 19, a Turkish journalist filmed Binali Yildirim’s son Erkan at a gambling casino in Singapore. Of course, the father cannot be held responsible for his son’s actions but considering that the son runs the family business that Prime Minister Yildirim is also part of, and he has always been supportive of his son in the face of corruption allegations is an indication that Binali Yildirim is at least complicit in his son’s behavior.
It is expected that these issues will be a major headache for Binali Yildirim in his future endeavor to lead the party and be Turkey’s prime minister. But the main problem for Yildirim and Erdogan is to convince the public as to why they ousted Davutoglu whom the public perceived as an excellent prime minister. Despite the fact that Erdogan has been undisputed leader of the party, the way he ousted a popular leader has caused big stir among AKP supporters. The pro-Erdogan camp has not come with a plausible explanation to this question and a section of party supporters have started questioning why Erdogan has been ousting senior figures from the party one by one. Although the pro-Erdogan camp has been getting rid of potential Erdogan rivals from the party through a smooth process, this time they could not hide their real intention that Erdogan wants to be the all-powerful leader. And this failure may be a major nuisance for Erdogan in the next election.
Binali Yildirim made it clear that his main priority — as demanded by Erdogan — will be to push for changes in the constitution to establish the presidential system. He has also promised that he will fight PKK terrorism. But it is doubtful if Yildirim will be able to convince the public to change the constitution. The AKP does not have enough seats in parliament and it may only achieve its objective by holding a referendum. If it comes to that it is not certain that the public will back Erdogan’s personal ambition to become the new sultan.
Having said that, Erdogan may not be able to realize his ambition to become the all-powerful president. However, considering that Binali Yildirim has publicly announced that he will act in accordance with the president’s wishes, in practice Erdogan will still be Turkey’s overall leader. The only positive aspect of removing Davutoglu from office may be that Erdogan seemingly wants to change Turkey’s Syria policy. Davutoglu has been the architect of the destructive Turkish foreign policy that of course had Erdogan’s blessing. The Pelican Brief blog noted that one of the issues that Erdogan was upset with Davutoglu was Turkey’s Syria policy. The post explicitly stated that Erdogan believes he was misled by Davutoglu and pushed incessantly for regime change.
It is not certain that Turkey will reverse its Syria policy but there are some indications that a change may occur. Binali Yildirim in one of his first speeches noted that he would work to reduce the number of Turkey’s enemies and increase the number of its friends. He also stated “this meaningless war has been causing havoc in Syria for more than four years and led to the death of hundreds of thousands of our brothers/sisters in Islam…” Considering the harsh and uncompromising rhetoric of Davutoglu, such a statement may be considered a sign of hope. It is probable that Erdogan has finally realized that the rebels have no prospect of winning the war. Therefore, he may want to seize the opportunity to repair Turkey’s relations with Syria, Iran, and Russia and blame Davutoglu for Ankara’s mistakes. But it is too early at this point to reach any definite conclusion.