Creating new perspectives since 2009

Turkey’s political experience is at a crossroads

May 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm

The decision made by the nominal head of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, to hold an extraordinary congress for the party on 22 May, brings to an end the long and eventful phase of the country dictated by his brilliant foreign policies. Turkey will enter a new phase with its own very different challenges.

Reasons for resignation

Since Davutoğlu was appointed as head of the AKP when his predecessor Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected as President in August 2014, there has been behind the scenes talk in Ankara of disputes between the two. These included differences over choosing the members of the party’s central committee on the eve of the presidential election.

The disputes did not revolve around visions, ideas or strategies as much as the decision-making mechanisms in the ruling party and government. While the two kept quiet about them and tried very hard, with a number of mediators, to reach a solution, ultimately they reached a dead-end. The decision by Erdogan’s central committee to strip Davutoğlu of his authority to appoint the heads of the party’s branches, without his knowledge, was the final straw.

The roots of the dispute between the president and the “professor” go back to two main problems. The first is a structural constitutional issue associated with the 1982 constitution, which is still followed today. This covers the president having the authority to interfere with the power of the prime minister to form the government. The result has been crises between every president and prime minister since the constitution was adopted, with the exception of the rule of coup leader Kenan Evren. The people of Turkey will never forget when President Ahmet Necdet Sezer threw the constitutional code book at the late Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. This ended in the collapse of the government, with Turkey bankrupt and politically stagnant.

What further complicated matters and intensified that impasse was the 2007 referendum on a constitutional amendment for the people to elect the president directly. This gave Erdogan, the first president to be directly elected by the people in Turkey, popular legitimacy to be added to his legal authority, his personality and his track record of achievements.

The second problem is political rivalry linked to the personalities of the two men. Erdogan is the charismatic politician and founder of the party; he is strong and ambitious and the de facto party leader. Davutoğlu, meanwhile, is a political theorist, strategic thinker and extremely self-confident academic professor. While the former wanted the decision-making reference to be decisive, the latter wanted a degree of independence therefrom. The clash occurred when choosing the party’s central committee and deciding whether or not to accept the resignation of the head of intelligence, as well as choosing the list of party candidates for the parliamentary elections, the ministers and other less significant issues. The overwhelming majority of these were resolved according to Erdogan’s will, even though the constitution insists that he should have resigned from his party and became independent after being elected president.

Constitutional dilemma

With Davutoğlu’s announcement that he will not run for office at the party congress, there are many questions about who will succeed him. However, the matter seems more complicated than merely coming up with a name, for the prime minister has driven Turkish foreign policy for the past four years.

If he was chosen as a successor to Erdogan based on his power, charisma, presence and acceptance to the people, in order to fill the gap left by Erdogan himself and lead the party in the parliamentary elections, then such criteria should not be used to choose Davutoğlu’s successor if Turkey is to avoid similar issues in the future. Hence, the person whose nomination Erdogan will support must be known to the AKP’s members and have an effective executive personality, without having great political ambition; he must also be ready to work in harmony with the president.

None of this may fundamentally resolve the issue as long as the constitutional problem remains. This puts the choice of Turkey having either a presidential system or reform of the parliamentary system at the top of the list of priorities once again, and it is something that must be resolved quickly. This is because no one can guarantee that similar issues will not arise between Erdogan and the next prime minister, or even between any other duo at the top in Turkey in the future, given the (practically, not officially) hybrid political system followed in the country between the parliament and the presidency.

The candidate nominated by the president is not expected to face strong opposition from within the AKP, which has maintained a long and firm tradition of preserving unity and internal cohesion. This is the message that Davutoğlu himself was keen to reiterate in his farewell speech. The appointment of his successor will most likely be smooth, as it was with his predecessor. This is, of course, unless a trend within the party decides to nominate its own candidate. There are quite a few former office-bearers who have been sidelined from decision-making circles, particularly former President Abdullah Gul and former Deputy Chairmen of the AKP and Deputy Prime Ministers Bulent Ecevit and Hussein Celek, as well as the creator of the Turkish economic boom, Ali Babacan.

The real challenges

Davutoğlu’s departure is not expected to lead to a big change in Turkey’s policies in general or its foreign policy in particular, since the decline in Turkey’s role has prompted Ankara to revise the latter. This decline is due to external reasons, the most important of which are the developments in the Syrian conflict, the crisis with Russia and US-Russian cooperation; the problem is not domestic or associated with the prime minister as an individual. Moreover, Davutoğlu was not completely independent in his policies and decisions, which were made in consensus with Erdogan, who has the final say; it doesn’t seem as if this will change with the new party leader and prime minister.

Accordingly, the short and medium-terms may not hold real risks for the president, the AKP or the next government. The true and strategic challenges lie in the long run and include the party’s and Turkey’s loss of Davutoğlu’s efforts and experience as a major theorist. It is hard to imagine Turkey’s foreign policy without him behind it.

Furthermore, given the absence of many historical leaders, such as the aforementioned, there is a genuine concern for the future of the Justice and Development Party and, indeed, the Turkish experience as a whole under Erdogan’s overly centrist leadership.

To that must be added the fact that many believe that what helped Erdogan to make the sensitive and critical decision to replace the party chairman is that he envisioned a historic opportunity with the opposition at their weakest, with their own internal disputes. Opinion polls have indicated that the Nationalist Movement Party and the Peoples’ Democratic Party may have problems even being represented in parliament in any future elections. Last year, this encouraged the president to call for early elections which he judged — correctly — would give the AKP the necessary majority to approve a new constitution and the presidential system.

However, this involves a significant risk regarding the extent of the Turkish people’s conviction of the need and benefit of abandoning Davutoğlu and the government to serve this purpose; it had the potential to lead to a “punishment” vote, similar to the result of last June’s election. This is especially so given that elections or constitutional referendums in the near future will be led by the new, relatively weak, new party chairman.

Despite the crises surrounding Turkey on every side, both internally and externally, it was enjoying the kind of stability which was the envy of all Middle East states. This stability could be disturbed by internal AKP rivalry or a decline in its popularity, opening the door to opposition groups to take advantage.

The challenge associated with the idealistic image of the Turkish experience, whose democracy and group work was its best source of soft power in the region, cannot be discounted. This challenge is in the form of the departure or removal of all the big name founders of the AKP who went through the experience together. Davutoğlu is the latest big name to depart; his contribution has been to provide the intellectual and strategic depth which led to the AKP winning the highest percentage of votes — 49.8 per cent— under his leadership last November. His departure has not come as a result of a request from the party or its members, but is due to his relationship with President Erdogan.

Finally, Turkey’s political experience has been driven competently by the Justice and Development Party for the past 14 years, but it is now experiencing a critical stage that is almost entirely dependent on the character, vision and policies of the president to tackle challenges the likes of which have never been seen in Turkey’s modern history. Apart from the escalation with the terrorist Kurdish PKK, the Syrian crisis, the Russian challenge, the Kurdish political project in north Syria and the global economic crisis, perhaps the most important is to keep the AKP’s members cohesive and unified enough to build a powerful and new Turkey by 2023.


Translated from, 8 May, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.