Erdogan’s dream to revive Turkey’s ‘lost status’ as the most powerful Muslim country cannot be materialized, he and his advisers seem to believe, without first fundamentally altering Turkey’s own political system and this alteration is, he believes, incomplete without making him powerful. Hence, Erdogan’s emphasis on ‘constitutionally’ introducing presidential form of government in Turkey to concentrate all power into his personality. It is ironic to see the emphasis on this system coming at a time when Erdogan himself is Turkey’s president. However, the power-drive he is riding is likely to cost Turkey a lot in terms of political stability. Already Turkey is facing enormous difficulties due to its bad policies on the external front; and now the reported rift between Erdogan and Turkey’s prime minister is going to add fuel to the fire. In simplest terms, resignation of Turkey’s PM has made Erdogan the head of state, of the government and, of course, the party. What a tremendous way of becoming the head of ‘everything’! Any yet Erdogan continues to claim that Turkey is a ‘democracy.’
While Erdogan’s current constitutional status supposes him to act in a ‘neutral’ manner, his extremely narrowly self-defined political behaviour tends to defy Turkey’s constitution in the most ridiculous way. Despite the fact that Erdogan had picked Davutoglu’s concept of ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ as a means to re-establish Turkey’s relations with the former territories of Ottoman Empire, stretching from the Middle East, North Africa to the Balkan and Black Sea regions, they seem to have developed serious differences with regard to the changes in domestic political system that should precede the implementation of this new foreign policy outlook. For Erdogan, this change in the foreign policy—a policy that is aimed at reviving Turkey’s position of power in the region— and the objectives it envisages cannot be effectively materialized unless a strong centre is created.
That Erdogan is squeezing power into his own hands is evident from the statement Davutoglu gave after the crisis talks with the president failed. He was reported to have said that one important reason for stepping down was a decision by the party’s executive (Erdogan) to take away his (prime minister’s) authority to appoint provincial party leaders.
However, this is not only the reason. The rift is deep-rooted in two different visions that both of them have with regard to taking Turkey out of crisis. While Davutoglu believed in the way of dialogue with the Kurds, Erdogan believed in creating a strong presidency. As such, While Davutoglu spoke of the possibility of resuming peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) if it withdrew armed fighters from Turkish territory, Erdogan said it was out of the question for the peace process to restart. Further disagreements took place after Davutoglu expressed opposition to the pre-trial detention of journalists accused of spying and academics accused of voicing support for the PKK.
For some, the reason for this crisis goes even deeper. The fact of the matter is that Erdogan had hand-picked his PM. Davutoglu did not, as such, have any strong base within the AKP’s structure. While this is yet another instance of how strong Erdogan continues to be and how explicitly he continues to defy his constitutional role, it also shows how creepy and fragile Turkey’s politics is becoming. This fragility is also showing its signs in some other aspects of polity too. The Turkish lira and the country’s stock market have fallen in recent days as investors shuddered at the prospect of a protracted leadership battle in a $720bn economy plagued by inflation, high foreign debt, a five-year long war on its border with Syria and a violent insurgency in its big cities.
This instability is, as a result of Davutoglu’s exit, likely to creep into Turkey’s relations with the West, particularly the EU, and damage it to a considerable extent. The reason why this is likely to happen is the rapport the Turkish PM had built with the EU and the deals he had made with regard to re-settlement of refugees.
Within the parameters of Turkey’s domestic politics, Davutoglu’s success in easing down Turkey’s relation with the EU meant—or it could be taken as such—that he was acquiring a relatively bigger stature than that of Erdogan—a sense that could have went against Erdogan’s push for presidential form of government.
It was this sense of ‘political status’ that was at the heart of problems between the PM and the President. And it is for this reason that Erdogan had to remind Davutoglu as well as Turkey’s public the true ‘hand-picked’ status of the prime minister. Addressing a group of local leaders on Wednesday, Erdogan was quoted as explicitly stating, “What matters is that you should not forget how you got to your post, what you should do there and what your targets are.” Given such an authoritarian stance, Davutoglu’s exit is going to put at risk Turkey’s ties with the West, which sees Erdogan with skepticism bordering on derision. Erdogan’s palace coup to ease out Davutoglu will only be seen in the West as a leap forward in the direction of authoritarianism.
Ironically, this is precisely what this development is all about. By paving the way for a more ‘sober’ and politically obedient and passive prime minister, Erdogan has underscored his own political power, putting himself in an ‘un-challengeable’ position, but indirectly also allowing Turkey to drift into experiencing an Ottoman-era type political tyranny. While Davutoglu dreamt of re-establishing Turkey’s relations with former territories of Ottoman Empire through his brain-child concept of ‘Neo-Ottomanism’, for Erdogan, this concept is incomplete without first turning his personality into the modern day ‘Sultan.’ Hence the question: will Turkey’s drift into ‘Ottomanism’ lead to its fall on the lines of the Ottoman Empire too? This question, as political behaviour of Erdogan and his team reveals, does not seem to have crossed their mind.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.