A ‘Steady March to Authoritarianism’ in Turkey

Atlantic Council’s Aaron Stein says prime minister’s resignation will heighten political polarization

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s decision to resign following disagreements with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will heighten political polarization inside Turkey, said the Atlantic Council’s Aaron Stein.

“Half the country views this as, to use their language, a palace coup. There are real concerns among the half of the country that does not vote for the AKP that this is a steady march to authoritarianism,” said Stein, a Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The ruling Justice and Development Party is known by its Turkish acronym AKP.

“Erdoğan remains the most powerful politician in Turkey by about ten miles, if not twenty now. He has no rival,” Stein added.

Davutoğlu, who served as Erdoğan’s foreign minister and became prime minister in 2014 after Erdoğan assumed the presidency, said on May 5 that he will step down after an extraordinary meeting of the AKP on May 22. Davutoğlu’s departure clears the way for Erdoğan to appoint a more pliable prime minister.

Davutoğlu’s decision to resign followed a dilution of his powers as AKP leader last week, but is likely the result of a steady buildup of differences between him and Erdoğan. “Davutoğlu was a very lukewarm supporter of the presidential system and was probably forced to publicly say that he supported it. That really is the crux of the disagreement,” said Stein.

Under Turkey’s constitution, it is the prime minister who is the most powerful elected official in the country. However, Erdoğan—who would like to amend the constitution to vest more powers in the presidency—has been widely viewed as the pre-eminent power.

The AKP saw an unexpected reversal of fortunes in a second round of elections in November of 2015 after it failed, just five months earlier, to secure a decisive parliamentary majority—a first for the party in thirteen years. It suffered the setback in June, leading to new elections in November, where it secured a majority (317 seats), but still did not pass 330.

Erdoğan has been firmly in control since 2003—first as prime minister, and since 2014 as president. His goal of rewriting Turkey’s constitution and transforming the country from a parliamentary into a presidential form of government has been stymied by the fact that the AKP, despite its electoral gains in November, does not have enough seats in parliament to push through such an amendment. However, the AKP has said it will present an amended constitution in June. Stein contended that Erdoğan could call early elections in the fall if he sees a way to give the AKP the parliamentary majority it needs to push the amendments through.

Davutoğlu’s exit could also have implications for Turkey on the world stage.

Carl Bildt, a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board and a former prime minister of Sweden, took to Twitter to warn that “the credibility of Turkey’s EU road rests today with PM Davutoglu. If he leaves, bets are off.”

Stein described Davutoğlu as the architect of Turkey’s foreign policy, but said it has been Erdoğan who has called the shots all along. With Davutoğlu’s departure Turkey’s relationship with Europe may get “a little dicey” because “Erdoğan is far blunter in his dealings with European leaders, so the continued implementation of the refugee deal could become more difficult and Erdoğan could use it as a means to continue to extract concessions, particularly from [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel,” he said.

The EU and Turkey reached a deal on March 18 under which all migrants who attempt to enter Europe via the Aegean Sea are sent back to Turkey. In a “one-to-one” swap, Europe will take in one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp for every Syrian returned from Greece.

Aaron Stein spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Why has Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu decided to resign?

Stein: From the outset of Davutoğlu’s tenure as prime minister there were legislative differences that emerged between him and President Erdoğan, first about how to deal with the corruption allegations that came up in December of 2013. As a means to head off criticism, Davutoğlu proposed a transparency package that would reveal more of the financial dealings of the AK party as a whole and some of the members of parliament. Erdoğan rejected that idea because of the implication that elements of his family were also involved in the corruption allegations. Throughout Davutoğlu’s tenure you began to see disagreements about the direction of the country—the presidential system being the most obvious.

Davutoğlu was a very lukewarm supporter of the presidential system and was probably forced to publicly say that he supported it. That really is the crux of the disagreement. They had a differing long-term vision on how Turkey should be governed and Davutoğlu wanted space to operate within the current structure as a more pronounced and prominent prime minister, while Erdoğan probably wanted someone who was more subservient to him and his ideals.

Now the issue has become more concrete about the presidential system. The AKP says it is going to put out its own document that will include this transition in June. One would expect a very public campaign to begin to convince people of its merits. You want all your ducks in a row if you are Erdoğan as you begin to move into campaign season and if Davutoğlu was not that guy, now is the time to make that change.

Q: Hasn’t this effort to amend the constitution been held up by the fact that the AKP does not have a large enough majority in parliament?

Stein: Yes, but political realities have changed inside Turkey. The AKP now has 317 seats and emerged from the November elections relatively empowered because it was able to pick up a number of seats. But still, in the back of everyone’s mind was June where they lost a lot of support because of the rise of the HDP [the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party].

Now, because of the resumption of the conflict with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] in the southeast, the HDP has lost a lot of support and would struggle to pass the ten percent threshold required to get into parliament. At the same time, the MHP [the Nationalist Movement Party], the far-right nationalists, are having their own leadership struggle. The current chairman, Devlet Bahçeli, is facing a revolt within his own party, and oddly Erdoğan has an incentive for him to stay in place because he is so unpopular. Meanwhile, Meral Akşener has galvanized elements of that party’s base and has excited people and theoretically increased support somewhere in the area of sixteen percent. If the current MHP chairperson stays in power, they would struggle to get about ten percent.

So you can foresee coming up in autumn an incentive to hold an early election. If the election were to play out according to current opinion polls, you have not a guaranteed, but a better than average chance that the AKP can go over 367 seats. That would give them enough seats to pass the constitution outright without the need for a public referendum.

If you present your constitution in June, which the AKP has said it will do, and you need early elections to get that constitution passed it makes sense to hold that early election in autumn. If they choose not to hold an early election, the play would be to peel off supporters of the current chairman of the MHP and get their support in parliament to get over 330 [seats] and then you can put [the constitution] to a public referendum.

AaronSteinQuote Q: What are the political implications for Erdoğan of Davutoğlu’s decision to resign?

Stein: It will heighten political polarization in Turkey. Half the country views this as, to use their language, a palace coup. There are real concerns among the half of the country that does not vote for the AKP that this is a steady march to authoritarianism.

Within the AKP this clearly has revealed a split. It is not a split that threatens the viability of the party. The AKP is Turkey’s most powerful political party. The opposition is in turmoil. You have a very dominant AKP, but you have within that clear splits.

Erdoğan remains the most powerful politician in Turkey by about ten miles, if not twenty now. He has no rival. You will see his legislative initiative—the presidential system—basically be the focus in domestic Turkish politics moving forward.

Q: Davutoğlu was widely perceived as the more moderate face of the Turkish government, someone who could work with the West. What does his resignation mean for Turkey’s relationship with the West and for the West itself as it looks to Turkey to help with crises ranging from the war in Syria to the migrant crisis in Europe?

Stein: Davutoğlu is the architect of Turkey’s current foreign policy. He has had a profound impact on shaping the way the party, including Erdoğan, views foreign conflicts and executes foreign policy.

The party has begun a shift in its own approach to foreign policy, beginning last year, which coincides with some of the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu tensions, but these shifts were being put in place long before Davutoğlu was forced out. I don’t expect any major changes to come to the execution of Turkish foreign policy because the instruments with which Turkey executes foreign policy—from the NGO level, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the army—remain in place and Erdoğan will always be the real power behind the scenes.

Erdoğan has a pragmatic streak. He, along with elements within the foreign policy decision-making apparatus, are the ones behind the idea to make peace with Israel, to try and exploit the eastern Mediterranean natural gas reserves, and it is Erdoğan who has been convinced of the need to back off from the overt criticism of Egypt, largely because of his burgeoning relationship with the Saudis. I expect all of this to continue.

Where it may get a little dicey is that Erdoğan is far more blunt in his dealings with European leaders, so the continued implementation of the refugee deal could become more difficult and Erdoğan could use it as a means to continue to extract concessions, particularly from [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.

In Syria, the divergence over strategy remains. Erdoğan is a hardline figure on the PKK, so is Davutoğlu for that matter, and so concerns about the YPG [the Kurdish People’s Protection Units] will persist.

Q: What does Davutoğlu’s resignation mean for Turkey’s road to European Union membership?

Stein: There is no EU process with Turkey. There is a transactional relationship now built around the refugee deal, and moving forward on certain elements like lifting of the visa requirements.

I have yet to see on either side, the European side or the Turkish side, a serious effort to continue with the opening of chapters not related to this transactional deal with the EU. Even if Turkey and the EU were serious and began to do all the things that are necessary to hasten accession one cannot envision Turkey being a member of the EU for five to seven years. If they are not serious you can drag this process out for another twenty. I think the latter is the more likely option.

Q: Davutoğlu was reportedly more inclined to starting a peace process with the PKK. What does his resignation mean for the prospects of that effort?

Stein: There is widespread agreement within the AKP on the need to continue military operations in the southeast. There is near uniformity in the idea that the PKK, because of concurrent developments in northern Syria, got far too emboldened and needs to be beaten down before any move can be made back to the negotiating table.

The current operations in the southeast, despite the widespread destruction and all those horrible pictures that everybody sees, has widespread support inside Turkey. If one wants to be cynical, the war has not damaged Erdoğan politically, in fact it has damaged the HDP and if they go beneath the ten percent threshold it benefits Erdoğan if early elections are held.

I don’t see any viable way back to the peace process for the next six months. Obviously things can change, but there is no desire or appetite, as far as I can see, for a ceasefire.

On the PKK side, there is also no desire or appetite for a ceasefire. They are taking heavy losses, but they are also dishing out some pain to the Turkish armed forces.  There is a mindset within their leadership that they have experienced far worse in the past and they have survived. In order for the PKK to consider to lay down its arms, it says that it needs a mutually announced ceasefire—not a unilateral ceasefire on the PKK side; an easing of prison conditions for Abdullah Öcalan, their imprisoned leader; and an outside party to mediate future peace talks. On all three counts the Turkish government, across the board, is not willing to give in.

Ashish Kumar Sen is Deputy Director, Editorial, at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Aaron Stein and Ashish Kumar Sen

Image: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu speaks to reporters at the ruling AK Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, on May 5. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)