Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said that he is “ready to concede all positions in order not to inflict any harm to our party’s cause or to my companions.” He made the claim confidently in a press conference held to announce the date of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s extraordinary congress. “I will maintain close family ties with President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and I will never allow any rumours or speculations about my respect for him and his role as a leader of the Republic of Turkey,” the premier added.
Davutoğlu’s comments were made in response to it becoming public knowledge that he will step down at the congress on 22 May. It’s not easy to claim that this has been expected, though there were many reasonably-sourced media leaks about serious differences between himself and Erdogan. The prime minister’s resignation is a dramatic turn of events in Turkish politics and it will have serious consequences politically and economically.
While President Erdogan and Davutoğlu are keen to reject claims of any disagreements, the media leaks suggest that all is not well behind closed doors. It is no secret, though, that the two have differing opinions about a number of issues. There were rumours for a month before Davutoğlu’s announcement of the date of the congress and his intention not to stand again for office within the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Since the party came to power in 2003, it has recorded a series of unprecedented electoral successes under its founder Erdogan. However, in last June’s controversial parliamentary election, the AKP lost its majority for the first time.
As Prime Minister and AKP Chairman, Davutoğlu suggested rather surprisingly that the Turkish people seemed to have voted against the presidential system. He is believed to be resisting a change of the Turkish parliamentary system into an executive presidency, which is Erdogan’s preference.
That post-election statement last year was perceived as the first time that Davutoğlu had branded himself as a possible independent successor to the most charismatic and influential leader in modern Turkey. During his term as Prime Minister, Davutoğlu has succeeded in portraying himself as an independent policy-maker and not simply the stereotype image of a handpicked, subservient successor.
After the loss of the AKP’s parliamentary majority, Davutoğlu tried in vain to form a coalition government. Almost inevitably, President Erdogan then called a snap election last November, in which the party reclaimed its majority in parliament.
After this electoral triumph, Davutoğlu consolidated his authority by seeking greater empowerment as a strong leader worthy of succeeding an extremely powerful party founder. Simmering tensions between the two have now reached breaking point, with Davutoğlu believing that the AKP’s old guard intends to strip him of his power to choose the members of the party’s supreme council and its provincial leaders. They have, in fact, already done so by assigning the power to the AKP’s Supreme Delegate Committee that was carefully selected by Erdogan.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was, apparently, the declaration by Minister of Transport and Telecommunications Binali Yildirim, who is known to be very close to the president, that he is going to nominate himself as party head in the upcoming congress. Surprisingly, members of the party are already collecting signatures for his candidacy, which is what pushed Davutoğlu to announce his intention to stand down as prime minister in order not to deepen the split.
Further leaks have revealed that the potential replacements for Davutoğlu are government spokesman Noman Kurtulumus; Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag and Minister of Energy Berat Albayrak, as well as Yildirim.
This rift between the two most important political figures in Turkey coincides with the progress of the Turkish army against the outlawed terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); Davutoğlu and Erdogan seem to differ on this issue as well. The former had proposed the return to peace talks to finalise a peaceful reconciliation to the ongoing battle in the south and south-eastern provinces of Turkey, while the latter appears to be more hawkish.
The dispute between the two over the nomination of the head of the Turkish Intelligence Service, Hakan Fidan, in the parliamentary election was another manifestation of their mutual disagreement. Davutoğlu encouraged Fidan to run for office without the approval of Erdogan, who declared publically that he is not in favour of such a move; as president, he added, he was confident that Fidan’s demanding role in the intelligence world is much more important than a role in parliament. Eventually, Fidan withdrew his nomination.
Monetary policy has been another point of divergence, with Erdogan backing policies with lower interest rates, and Davutoğlu wanting to refrain from any kind of government intervention in order to maintain the independence of the central bank. Moreover, it is said that Erdogan was not entirely happy about not being consulted over Turkey’s landmark deal with the EU on Syrian refugees.
When the dispute was made public, shares fell on the Turkish stock market and the Lira’s value against other currencies also took a tumble as investors considered the situation.
There are many who see these political developments in Turkey as a golden opportunity to stir things up. Opposition media channels stressed Erdogan’s dominance of executive power, and claimed that he was seeking to become the only crowned sultan. Others with political and religious agendas of their own described the conflict between president and prime minister as a continuation of a witch-hunt by the “dictator” – Erdogan – against his rivals. “Compared with other dictators, Erdogan’s grip over Turkey is not entirely consolidated,” tweeted one left-wing writer. “However, it’s in the final stages with the resignation of Davutoğlu.”
Erdogan’s opponents have even used the words of former President Abdullah Gul, who said famously, “I faced great disrespect from within my own camp.” Similarly, former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said, “I was contemptuously invited to the congress of the party I founded. This is not an appropriate way to deal with somebody like me.”
Both of these renowned political figures pledged to be sincere foot soldiers for the party they loved and never stab their colleagues in the back. While Gul has made it clear that he intends to stay in politics, Arınç prefers to rest, although he has promised to resume his political career when a favourable opportunity comes along.
The leadership change at the top of the Justice and Development Party comes as the country is facing numerous intricate challenges. These include its ongoing military operations against the PKK militants, terrorist attacks carried out by Daesh on the border with Syria and within Turkish cities, and the influx of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the full-scale offensive of the Russian air force and the Assad regime’s barbaric aggression in and around Aleppo.
The leadership shuffle in this critical period is a risky step that some believe may eventually lead to a split in the AKP, especially with more voices calling for serious opposition to the growing power of President Erdogan. His critics say that he has become increasingly authoritarian and that this will have a negative effect on the proposed referendum on the system of governance in the new Turkish constitution.
Finally, it is worth-mentioning that Erdogan and Davutoğlu didn’t differ on visions or strategies, but the disagreement between them lies within the party and its operational management and decision-making mechanisms. The Turkish constitution provides political leaders with room for disagreement, but this has led eventually to this clash between the head of state and head of the government.
It’s true that Erdogan resigned from the AKP after being elected as president but his influence and loyal supporters are still there. Since he has said repeatedly that he won’t be a typical president, he intends to activate his constitutional rights and play a more powerful role during his term in office.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.