And just like that, he’s gone. After leading the AKP to victory in November and regaining the parliamentary majority that the party had failed to win a few months earlier, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is being replaced upon the decree of President Erdoğan. A prime minister being ousted by the president outside of an election is a normal occurrence in many countries, but not in countries that have parliamentary systems or in countries where the prime minister is the leader of the ruling political party. In this case, Davutoğlu is simply the latest victim of Erdoğan’s fiat and his determination to do whatever he likes whenever he likes, rules and regulations be damned.
The truth is that Davutoğlu never had a chance. As all Turkey observers know, Erdoğan has been on a multiyear mission to transform Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. While he has done his utmost best to accomplish this under the current strictures – chairing cabinet meetings despite the complete absence of the national emergency or special circumstances that are required by the Turkish constitution, setting up his own shadow government outside of the prime minister’s office, building a literal palace that was intended for the prime minister but then taking it for himself once he was elected president – to do so ultimately requires a new constitution and a prime minister who is willing to radically reduce his own powers and back such a plan. To Erdoğan’s great rage, Davutoğlu has not proven to be such a prime minister to Erdoğan’s complete satisfaction, and like anyone else who has stood in Erdoğan’s way (MPs, reporters, children who are found to have insulted him), Davutoğlu has now been dealt with. Whether, like my good friend and colleague Steven Cook, you describe the situation in Turkey under Erdoğan as patrimonial sultanism or, like me, you describe it as a presidential takeover, the upshot is that Davutoğlu’s only chance for political longevity was in backing Uzun Adam, and he quite clearly did not go far enough for the Tall Man’s liking. This is not to suggest that Davutoğlu has been some courageous and independent politician, since I think he has been far from it. But when you expect total acquiescence and you only get mostly acquiescence, heads roll.
It is important to clearly understand why this episode is particularly outrageous. When Erdoğan ascended to the presidency, the Turkish constitution required him to officially resign from the AKP and to have no involvement in the party’s political affairs, as the Turkish president is supposed to be non-partisan and above politics. Erdoğan then proceeded to blatantly campaign for the AKP on multiple occasions with appeals to voters that only a vote for the AKP would ensure stability and a new constitution. He was heavily involved in choosing the AKP’s candidates for the Grand National Assembly, a task that is supposed to be done by the party leader, who in this case was not Erdoğan but Davutoğlu. The makeup of the current cabinet ostensibly selected by Davutoğlu following the November election, and which is supposed to have nothing at all to do with the president, has Erdoğan’s fingerprints all over it and includes numerous Erdoğan loyalists and his son-in-law. Now comes the most egregious interference of all, which is that Erdoğan, who supposedly has no involvement with the AKP whatsoever by law, has managed to depose the head of the AKP and force a party with which he is supposed to have no affiliation to choose a new leader and new prime minister. You can call this whatever you like (and many are referring to it as a palace coup, which is a particularly wonderful and literal turn of phrase in this case since Erdoğan actually does live in a palace), but a sign of healthy democracy it is not. I feel like simultaneously laughing and crying while watching the various Erdoğan sycophants in the press and on Twitter rush to do their best Winston Smith imitations by banishing all positive mentions of Davutoğlu down the memory hole now that he has become an enemy of Oceania rather than an ally.
I do not mean to convey the impression that Davutoğlu should be seen as a principled martyr for the greater good. My thoughts on his role in fomenting an ugly nationalism in Turkey have not changed, and he is complicit in Turkey’s authoritarian slide by giving cover to Erdoğan for years in allowing him to roll back democratic gains. I do not think that history will treat him terribly kindly, despite the mid-2000s fawning over him as a leading global thinker, given that much of his reputation for strategic brilliance was exposed as naïve and arrogant blustering – can anyone still utter the phrase “zero problems with neighbors” without snickering? – and he more than anyone else is responsible for Turkey’s past half decade of disastrous foreign policy and geopolitical weakening. But the fact that Davutoğlu is a flawed prime minister is ultimately only for Turkish voters and his own party to judge in deciding whether to remove him, and it is decidedly not under the purview of Turkey’s president, who is supposed to have no role in party politics at all, to sack him. The absolute loser in all of this is not one newly unemployed individual, but the institutions and political culture of the Turkish state.
Aside from the damage to Turkey itself, there is a high likelihood of a series of unintended consequences that will unfurl as a result of Davutoğlu’s removal. Davutoğlu has been the point man in negotiating the refugee deal and the related visa waiver deal with the EU. With him out of the picture, both of these developments are in danger. It is difficult to imagine smooth sailing ahead between Turkey and the EU with Erdoğan or an Erdoğan flunky at the helm of the relationship on the Turkish side (and make no mistake about what level of independence the next Turkish prime minister will enjoy). This also in my view increases the likelihood that the group of AKP heavyweights who have fallen out of the palace’s favor, most saliently Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç, finally decide to challenge their erstwhile political partner and co-AKP founder and form their own conservative political party that will directly compete with the AKP. It will be poetic should Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate power ultimately result in the opposite.
Should this happen, Davutoğlu himself will not be at the forefront. The primary reason that he was so easily disposed of is that he has no political base of his own, and in fact was not even an MP until the AKP’s third election victory in 2011. His rise was entirely dependent on Erdoğan, who elevated him from relative academic obscurity to be his chief foreign policy adviser and then eventually foreign minister. When you are a courtier whose position and influence hinge upon the king’s good graces, your only real option when you fall out of favor is to quietly slink away. The Davutoğlu era is over, and he will stand as a cautionary tale for those who do not bend entirely to Erdoğan’s will and as an enormous pulsating warning beacon for what lies ahead for Turkey and its imminent imperial presidency.