Again, I’m trying to get back to some regular blogging after an extended break. But in order to do that, I’ve got to make some sense of what’s been going on while I’ve been away–for my own sake far more than for yours. This is part of a series of pieces in which I’ll try to do that.
There’s actually some exciting news to report from Turkey: they’ve got a brand new Prime Minister! Here are the details:
Turkish Transport Minister Binali Yildirim was unanimously elected on Sunday as the new leader of the ruling AK party and therefore the prime minister.
One of the cofounders of the AK party along with Erdogan, Yildirim, 60, who was the sole candidate, won all the votes from the 1,405 delegates at an extraordinary party congress.
Hours later, Erdogan gave Yildirim the mandate to form a new government as prime minister following the resignation of Ahmet Davutoglu, the presidency said.
As you saw there, Yıldırım’s rise was only made possible by now-former PM Ahmet Davutoğlu’s May 5 resignation, which is how we’re politely referring to the fact that he was fired by President Tayyip Erdoğan. Davutoğlu’s dismissal/resignation is the biggest story in Turkey right now, though it’s really just a continuation of what’s been the biggest story in Turkey for the past several years: Erdoğan’s ongoing effort to consolidate power and change Turkey’s constitution to accommodate his ambitions for one-man rule.
A Falling Out
What happened between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to cost the latter his job? After all, when Erdoğan ran for and was elected president in August 2014, having been forced by AKP term-limit rules to quit being prime minister and give up his seat in parliament, he all but hand-picked his former foreign minister, Davutoğlu, to succeed him as PM. In doing so Erdoğan passed over the guy he muscled out of the presidency, Abdullah Gül, even though Gül, like Erdoğan, was one of the founding fathers of the AKP and had actually served briefly as PM back in 2002-2003. It was suggested that Erdoğan preferred Davutoğlu because he would be more pliant than Gül, with whom PM Erdoğan had disagreed on a few occasions. As it so happens, Davutoğlu, who in public was always supportive of Erdoğan, gave him a little push-back behind the scenes, and Erdoğan simply couldn’t abide that. The Middle East Institute’s Gönül Tol explains:
While there have never been open spats between the two leaders in the past, there were major disagreements. Davutoglu pursued a more moderate approach to the Kurdish question, arguing that a resumption of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) was still possible if the P.K.K. withdrew its armed forces from Turkey. Erdogan staunchly opposed the idea, opting for a more hardline approach.
The two also differed on the pre-trial imprisonment of academics, who were arrested earlier in the year over alleged “terror propaganda” after they signed a petition calling for an end to the fighting in the country’s Kurdish region. While Erdogan called on the judiciary to act against their alleged treachery, Davutoglu was opposed to their pre-trial imprisonment. Another conflict erupted when Davutoglu publicly proposed legislation aimed at tackling corruption. Erdogan, whose son and inner circle were implicated in a corruption probe in 2013 and 2014, publicly attacked the proposed legislation and the bill was withdrawn. More recently, Davutoglu secured a deal with the European Union to stem the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea in return for visa-free travel to the E.U. for Turkish citizens and an acceleration of Turkey’s E.U. membership process. Erdogan, on the other hand, has shown little interest in the issue, at times making it harder for European leaders to sell the deal to their public with his harsh and threatening statements against the E.U.
But probably the most important bone of contention between the two has been Erdogan’s rush to switch to a presidential system. Despite his public remarks suggesting otherwise, Davutoglu is deeply reluctant to move forward with Erdogan’s version of presidentialism, and prefers a presidential system that is strictly controlled by a rigorous check and balance mechanism. Erdogan, on the other hand, wants to build an imperial presidency that accumulates all the power in his hands and has been irritated by what he sees as Davutoglu’s ‘foot dragging.’
The big blow came on May 1, when an anonymous Turkish political blog called “Pelican Brief” came online with a post calling Davutoğlu a “traitor” for resisting Erdoğan’s constitutional changes, secretly pursuing peace with the Kurds, and colluding with nefarious Western governments that are apparently trying to remove Erdoğan from power. It was apparent that the post had been written with Erdoğan’s permission, if not directly on his behalf. Thus publicly cut off at the knees by his boss, Davutoğlu really had no choice but to “resign.” So Davutoğlu is out, and at relatively little cost to Erdoğan, since Davutoğlu had no political constituency and therefore has nobody (apart from people worried about Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism and a few members of the AKP old guard who have similarly been forced out of the party by Erdoğan) who will particularly care that he’s gone.
What Happens Now?
Ankara has a lot of crises to deal with these days, between prosecuting its war against the Kurds, trying to defend itself against more terror attacks from either the Kurds or ISIS, managing (preferably without killing any more refugees) the Syrian civil war along its southern border, and negotiating a refugee deal with the EU. But Davutoğlu was fired over only one issue, the push by Erdoğan to amend the constitution. Under Turkey’s current system, the prime minister’s office is legally far more powerful than the mostly ceremonial presidency. Erdoğan, however, is easily the most powerful political figure in the country, and the fact that he was popularly elected as president (2014 was the first time Turks voted for their president, prior to that presidents were elected by parliamentary vote) raises the actual authority of that office above that of the PM. This was already true with Davutoğlu as PM, but it will be even truer with Yıldırım, an even greater political non-entity than Davutoğlu who is entirely dependent on Erdoğan for his stature, in place. Already, in the makeup of the new cabinet, it’s clear that Erdoğan, not Yıldırım, is the one calling all the shots.
But de facto unitary authority is apparently not enough for Erdoğan, who desperately wants to amend the constitution to change Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one and enshrine his idea for a vastly more powerful presidency into law. At this point, he lacks the votes in parliament to either affect direct change to the constitution or to mandate a public referendum on proposed changes, but he’s working on a couple of fronts to change that:
- First, Erdoğan and the AKP seem to be forming a larger parliamentary bloc with a faction of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP appears to be splintering, with a faction that is unhappy with their current leader, Devlet Bahçeli. There are now signs that Erdoğan and Bahçeli have reached a sort of modus vivendi, whereby Erdoğan will help Bahçeli stay at the head of MHP behind the scenes, and in return Bahçeli will drive MHP votes into Erdoğan’s camp.
- Second, Erdoğan, with most of the AKP and part of the MHP behind him, is targeting members of the largely-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for legal jeopardy in an effort to purge them from the parliament. One May 20, the Turkish parliament passed a constitutional amendment stripping members of parliament of their qualified legal immunity. 50 of the HDP’s 59 members of parliament are now facing prosecution for charges related to the HDP’s ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with whom Ankara continues to be at war. Those ties exist but are probably being exaggerated by Erdoğan (though the HDP leadership has erred morally and politically in defending recent PKK violence). However, given the degree to which Erdoğan controls the Turkish judiciary at this point, whether these prosecutions are legitimate or not seems almost beside the point. What is the point is that breaking HDP will allow Erdoğan to call for early elections, with the hope that the HDP will fail to clear the 10% threshold for inclusion in the next parliament. If the HDP doesn’t make the cut, that leaves more seats to be allocated to the AKP when it emerges victorious from the election.
Between support from some MHP members and the extra seats that will accrue to the AKP if the HDP doesn’t qualify for the next parliament, Erdoğan may very well finally get the super-majority he needs to ram through his amendment. The change in PM will help Erdoğan finally get the amendment done. Where Davutoğlu was reluctant to engage this issue publicly and seems not to have wanted to pursue it behind the scenes, Yıldırım has already begun calling openly for constitutional change and will likely be just as enthusiastic about it in private.
Erdoğan’s push for more constitutional authority has gone hand in hand with his increasingly despotic behavior. His hostility to press freedom was amply put on display during his visit to Washington in early April, right after his security forces had seized control of the opposition’s Zaman newspaper, but it still bears mentioning that journalists reporting on unapproved stories in Turkey can and will find themselves going to prison for their trouble. He’s even demanded that other governments (Germany, for instance) crack down on insufficiently pro-Erdoğan speech by their own citizens and in their own countries. Erdoğan seems to believe that he’s under attack from all directions–from the US, from Europe, from Russia, from the Kurds in Turkey and Syria, from Turkey’s deep state, from the Gülenist movement–and that paranoia (some of which may not be unjustified) has helped drive him in this authoritarian direction. Turkey is more isolated internationally than it has been in some time, which undoubtedly fuels Erdoğan’s paranoia even though it’s largely Erdoğan’s doing (although the groundwork is already been laid to blame Davutoğlu for Turkey’s recent foreign policy failures).
Kurds and Refugees
The repercussions of Davutoğlu’s forced resignation will reverberate throughout Turkey’s political scene, but before we call it a post let’s focus on two important areas: Turkey’s war against the Kurds and Turkey’s relationship with the EU over the Syrian refugee issue. As the “Pelican Brief” blog suggested, one of Erdoğan’s beefs with Davutoğlu involved the prosecution of the war against the Kurds, which the latter apparently wasn’t pursuing with enough vigor to suit the president’s taste. So if anything this likely means you can expect further escalation in the fighting in southeastern Turkey, which is bad news for an already brutalized civilian population there. The ferocity with which Erdoğan is prosecuting the war against the PKK comes back to the issue of the constitutional amendment; war, as it turns out, is good for the AKP’s electoral fortunes. At the same time, though, there are recent signs that Ankara has, at long last, finally started planning to combat ISIS in Syria, in response to a number of recent ISIS attacks along the Turkish side of the border. And Washington, the only player that could possibly get the Turks to back off their campaign against the Kurds, seems willing to more or less ignore that conflict (and Erdoğan’s shift toward one-man rule, one of the many transitions he’s made in recent years) in order to appease Ankara over the US-Kurd alliance in Syria.
As far as the EU/refugee deal is concerned, where Turkey has agreed in principle to accept the return of Syrian refugees who have been detained in Europe in exchange for aid from the EU and agreements on visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and on moving Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership forward, it’s probably on pretty shaky ground at this point. That deal was really Davutoğlu’s doing, and Erdoğan never really seems to have been that enthusiastic about it. The Europeans are resistant to allowing Turks visa-free entry into Europe unless Turkey makes changes to its terrorism laws so that they can no longer be easily used to imprison political opposition. Erdoğan isn’t budging on that point, so now he’s now talking about going back on Turkey’s end of the deal. Without Davutoğlu to engage the Europeans in constructive talks it’s not clear that there’s a way out of this impasse.
In a New Yorker piece written the day after Davutoğlu’s “resignation,” Dexter Filkins called this “the eleventh hour for Turkish democracy.” Turkey’s democracy has always been tenuous; before Erdoğan the great threat was that the Turkish military might topple the elected government any time it seemed to be straying from the vision of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. After the Islamist AKP and Erdoğan came to power and the military did nothing to stop them, it seemed like Turkish democracy was on as strong a footing as it had ever been. But Erdoğan has now eliminated any intra-party rivals and has broken down two of the three opposition parties in parliament. Whether he gets his constitutional amendment or not, he is the last man standing when it comes to Turkish politics, and his control over the state is almost total.