Turkey's ruling party, the AKP, announced last week that it would hold an 'extraordinary congress' on 22 May where Ahmet Davutoglu would be replaced as prime minister. The announcement follows a year of growing friction between Davutoglu and President Recip Tayyip Erdogan after the June 2015 elections. Questions immediately emerged as to whether the turmoil was a clash of personalities or evidence of corruption of power by a leader viewed as having authoritarian tendencies.
Davutoglu and Erdogan at the presidential palace, Ankara, January 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Anadolu Agency)
Disagreements between the two surfaced after a lacklustre performance by the AKP during the 2015 elections. This poor showing delayed Erdogan's agenda of constitutional reform, designed to move Turkey's political system from a parliamentary to a presidential system with strong executive powers.
This conflict came to a head after an anonymous blog entitled The Pelican Files (Pelikan Dosyası) was publicised in the Turkish media earlier this month. In one post, the unnamed author details a secret bargain struck between then-Prime Minister Erdogan and then-Foreign Minister Davutoglu.
The post revealed two conditions put to Davutoglu before his ascension to prime minister. The first was that Davutoglu should not cooperate with the 'West or its Trojan horses'. The second was that Davutoglu guaranteed his support for the constitutional changes and would facilitate the move towards a presidential system. The blog post was unsourced, but Turkey watchers are in agreement that the author is likely close to Erdogan.
The purpose of the post, it seems, was to reconsolidate Erdogan's power during a period of flux. The Turkish president, as currently defined by the constitution, has limited political power; he is technically neutral, has few executive powers, and must largely act in agreement with the prime minister.
This dovetails with a period when Davutoglu's political influence has been increasing. Having become Erdogan's foreign minister in 2009, he has increasingly been viewed as an alternative point of contact for foreign leaders alienated by Erdogan's boisterous rhetoric. This was demonstrated when Erdogan was only offered an 'informal' meeting – interpreted as a snub –with Obama during his March visit to the US. A month later Davutoglu approached the White House for a meeting independent of Erdogan, incensing the Turkish President.
For critics of Erdogan, the removal of Davutoglu is another example of the creep towards authoritarianism driven by megalomania. Presidential reform is the latest in a line of so-called 'crazy projects', including a 43-kilometre canal that would turn Istanbul into an island and the Çamlıca 'mega' Mosque with the capacity for 50,000 worshippers. More pertinently, the construction of a new US$600 million presidential residence in Ankara, and the presumption it would be the headquarters for Erdogan directing the state using his new executive powers, have been interpreted as evidence of his disregard for democratic process.
Nonetheless, is it simplistic to group Erdogan in with regional despots such as Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan or Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Erdogan is politically savvy and has demonstrated pragmatism. For example, he has been liberal on Kurdish issues when required, such as when he personally launched the publication of a Kurdish language Quran. Furthermore, he was initially welcoming of the left-leaning HDP in the political process (claiming this demonstrated Turkey's democratic and pro-European credentials) despite its links to the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan.
It is also worth considering that many of the illiberal features of Erdogan's rule can be tied to Turkey's unique vision of itself in international politics. While he has moved away from Kemalism and its militant secularism, many of the core themes that dominated Turkey during the 20th century remain. Under this reading, Turkey views economic and political liberalism as tools to secure the Turkish state, rather than simply an end in itself. Through this lens, ostentatious statements by Erdogan such as 'democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination' are not meant to be judged as merely dismissals of liberal values, but rather as a Turkish-style realpolitik.
From this position, supporters of the AKP argue that the strong executive powers Erdogan seeks are critical for Turkey to address future political challenges. These include a revisionist Russia, the continuing Syrian crisis, the immigration crisis, and a potential Grexit (which would place a buffer between Turkey and the EU). Without these, the so-called 'Trojan horses' mentioned in the Pelican Files would corrupt the Turkish state. For Erdogan this includes foreign powers and other domestic political entrepreneurs including the Gulenist movement and the powerful actors within the military, often referred to as the 'deep state'.
Indeed, critics of Davutoglu argue he is responsible for many foreign policy failures, which are the result of too many concessions to these hidden actors. Of these, the deterioration of Syrian relations is most important. Syria was once viewed as the cornerstone of Davutoglu's so-called 'neo-Ottoman' agenda – the idea that Turkey would move away from the isolationism of the 20th century and engage deeply in the Middle East.
But a deep schism emerged after Assad's rejection of a Turkish proposal to 'redesign' their government, with analysts claiming Davutoglu's emphasis on the moral and ideational aspects of reform (made in order to appease European audiences) clouded his ability to deliver solutions grounded in practical security and defence matters. The end result was severe damage to Turkey's security position.
The corollary is that while the removal of Davutoglu can be framed as Turkey creeping towards authoritarianism, it also demonstrates Erdogan's ability to navigate a complex political environment even in the absence of hard political power during this period of transition. As such, he is now poised to triumph at the 22 May conference by appointing an AKP loyalist as prime minister and pushing through a referendum on political reform.
Overall, this suggests a level of sophistication behind Erdogan's reactionary façade, and indicates that those opposed to Erdogan's vision of the future have a long battle ahead.