And Then There Was One…

In an extraordinary move, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Prime Minister, has resigned after a public rift with President Erdogan over a number of key issues, including the EU and how to deal with the Kurdish problem.

Davutoglu, hailed as central to the AKP campaign against the iron grip of Ataturk’s legacy and a key architect behind Turkey’s revival as a regional power, has been vocal in his preference for the renewal of a peace process with the Kurds as well as his opposition to changing the Turkish system to a Presidential one.

Whatever the differences, Davutoglu’s resignation speaks volumes as to the state of the AKP and its current direction. He is now the second of the ‘core three’ (Erdogan, Gul, Davutoglu) to leave power, leaving only one man – Erdogan – remaining.

The ‘Core three’

When the AKP first came to power, the party boasted three distinguished individuals, each of whom complemented the other. As a trio they ensured the continued success of the party. Whilst Erdogan was the charismatic firebrand, giving hope and pride to a majority of the Turkish population who had suffered brutal repression under Ataturk and his disciples, Abdullah Gul as President served as the party unifier whilst Davutoglu, described as an intellectual, designed and implemented a foreign policy that would restore Turkey’s role in the region. With the three working in tandem, the AKP managed to swiftly resolve any internal differences. In the face of a severely divided opposition desperately unable to understand the underlying resentment of the Ataturk generation, the AKP were the only credible party capable of being in power.

Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism

There is no doubt that both domestically and internationally, Erdogan has come to the fore as the key symbol of the AKP. However, whilst inspiring a new generation of AKP (or Erdogan) loyalists, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style has also alienated allies. This is not the first time Erdogan has shown a willingness to dispense with allies who oppose him and this was no more evident than during the infamous Gezi Park crisis, through which Erdogan launched a campaign against the Fetullah Gulen movement.

This was the very movement considered to be vital in initially bringing the AKP to power. In this case, the first tensions between the ‘Core three’ broke through to the public as Abdullah Gul waded into the debate and criticised Erdogan’s measures. The rift was compounded by Erdogan’s desire to put in place plans to change the Turkish system to a Presidential one, a plan requiring a Prime Minister willing to enact his will; or for want of a realpolitik term, a puppet. Gul refused to play this role and in a demonstration of his opposition, chose to step aside.

Party interest versus the Sultan’s ambition

Abdullah Gul’s decision to step aside speaks to the nature of his politics and his refusal to be used as a means by which to damage Erdogan politically, provides us with an insight into the deep loyalty that senior party members have to the AKP project.

Whilst there was huge potential in politicising the personal feud between Gul and Erdogan, Gul abandoned any ambitions of his own and acknowledged that the party was, de facto, being led by Erdogan. Any discontent with Erdogan from Gul’s supporters was demonstrated by the retirement or resignation of most of Gul’s advisors and their refusal to join Erdogan’s team, but no more than that.

None of these individuals were willing to speak against Erdogan publicly and would refuse to comment in the media on government decisions. In other words, whilst they disagreed with Erdogan, they would not harm the party’s image by demonstrating disloyalty.

This is not to suggest that Erdogan put himself entirely before the party. Many anticipated an Erdogan loyalist to be appointed Prime Minister following Gul’s departure. However, Davutoglu’s appointment appeared to demonstrate an awareness on Erdogan’s part of the party structure and the need to ensure unity even amongst Gul’s supporters, as opposed to alienating them even further by rendering the AKP his own playground.

Although opponents cried foul play and that Davutoglu would simply be a puppet, in private circles, many journalists and officials begrudgingly approved the appointment on the basis that Davutoglu was an efficient and capable politician in his own right and had successfully navigated Turkey in a region where it was rejected by both the Arabs and the EU.

The Rift

The crux of the rift is Erdogan’s authoritarian style which has seen a clampdown and prosecution of journalists, a military campaign against the Kurds, as well as efforts to lift immunity on the HDP members of parliament in a bid to crush a resurgence of the Kurdish nationalist opposition.

More so, Davutoglu has drawn the ire of the President by refusing to publicly back moves for a presidential system, a key aim of Erdogan’s and a matter in which he hopes to call a referendum on within a year. To do that, Erdogan needs a compliant Prime Minister, a role Davutoglu clearly failed to fulfill.

What now for Davutoglu?

Although Davutoglu will leave his seat of power, the AKP is not necessarily in a crisis. The nature of Davutoglu does not differ much from Abdullah Gul in that the party comes first. In other words, whatever differences they have with Erdogan personally will not be at the expense of the AKP and it is likely that Davutoglu will continue to support the party from whatever position he takes up. He has already cemented his position in history as a key part of the extraordinary rise of the AKP in Turkey.

Moreover, the opposition have still not grasped that it is Ataturk’s legacy and secular extremism that created an environment that has allowed a party such as AKP to thrive. The conservative regions which form nearly a majority of the Turkish population continue to back the AKP, even as Erdogan grows more authoritarian. For them, Erdogan is nowhere near as oppressive as Ataturk and his legacy, and is not ashamed of his Islamic identity, one that the secularists openly campaign against. As a result, there is no clear alternative to the AKP amongst the opposition.

With Davutoglu out of the picture, it is most likely that Erdogan will bring in a ‘loyalist’, cementing his de facto control of the party. Gul broke his silence on the Gezi Park protests. Davutoglu broke his silence over the Kurdish issue. One can only speculate when the party will break its silence on Erdogan’s ambition.