Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s exit puts at risk Turkey’s ties with the West, which sees President Recep Erdogan with skepticism bordering on derision. Erdogan will henceforth be the head of state, head of government, head of the ruling party and the “head of everything in Turkey”
There is an ancient saying in South India regarding leadership styles – ‘Nothing grows under a banyan tree’. The banyan tree is a great sight with its spread-out branches, air-roots, secondary trunks, covering a vast area, giving shelter. But nothing grows under its dense foliage, and when it dies, the ground beneath its feet lies barren and scorched.
Some leaders are like banyan trees who can only tolerate followers and will not allow for the emergence of other leaders. Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is one such leader.
According to the latest reports, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has announced that he is stepping aside, declaring a May 22 congress date to mark the party’s future leader. Erdogan was seeking his replacement. A tense meeting lasting 100 minutes between the two in the presidential palace in Ankara on Wednesday was preceded by a poignant public remark by Erdogan –”What matters is that you should not forget how you got to your post.”
The import was not lost on Davutoglu who was hand-picked by the strongman when he himself moved into the presidency in August 2014.
It is a miserable spectacle to watch when the strong man tramples over a weakling. But why is Erdogan unhappy with Davutoglu?
For a start, they are like cheese and chalk. Erdogan grew up in the backstreets of Istanbul’s working class district of Kasimpasa and the tough life made him the ruthless political fighter he is today, still controlling the ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) with an iron grip even after he formally ceased to be the party boss after becoming the head of state, a constitutional post that expects him to be above the hurly-burly of party politics.
Erdogan is a man of limited formal education and the provincial mindset breeds complexes in the personality. Whereas, Davutoglu is a highly educated intellectual with a PhD in political science and international relations, a distinguished thinker and author on Turkish foreign policy and world politics, a scholar-diplomat who strayed into statecraft at Erdogan’s beckoning.
Indeed, Davutoglu has been compared with some justification as Turkey’s Kissinger. On one plane, therefore, Erdogan-Davutoglu rift can be attributed to the sharp contrast in their personalities, which was bound to surface at some point.
Davutoglu is far too erudite and urbane, and although he deliberately trimmed his sails and played second fiddle to Erdogan, he probably threw into relief unwittingly the latter’s inability to rise above the level of a mundane politician.
But then, this is also a rift over their respective visions for Turkey. A thinker like Davutoglu has beliefs and convictions and they do not conform to Erdogan’s world view which is almost entirely permeated with traditional Islamism.
What Erdogan originally found attractive in Davutoglu was the academic’s foreign policy vision that made a departure from ‘Kemalism’ by stressing the importance of rebuilding Turkey’s ties with the territories of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkan and Black Sea regions.
The doctrine of ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ that Davutoglu espoused appealed to Erdogan who styles himself as a Sultan and makes no bones about reviving the Ottoman legacies.
Equally, ‘neo-Ottomanism’ has a pan-Islamic character, which appeals to Erdogan who not only sees political Islam as a unifying factor in regional politics but visualizes a natural leadership role for Turkey (and himself) in the Muslim Middle East.
Where Erdogan and Davutoglu diverge is in regard of the latter’s curious advocacy of Turkey’s destiny also as a member of the European family. Davutoglu is serious about Turkey’s NATO membership and, left to himself, he might have sought a sustained pursuit of Turkey’s accession to the European Union.
Davutoglu visualizes that ‘neo-Ottomanism’ and ‘westernizm’ are both useful and necessary for Turkey to be an effective regional power. Erdogan, on the other hand, has been openly lukewarm and disdainful of the EU membership.
The EU accession process, which demands far better democratic credentials from Turkey, is antithetical to Erdogan’s political agenda of transforming Turkey into an authoritarian system of governance.
Interestingly, the timing of the move by Erdogan to ease out Davutoglu is not without significance. On Wednesday, the European Commission took a historic decision to recommend visa-free travel for Turks in the Shenghen zone as part of a deal, which was negotiated by Davutoglu personally, to curtail the flow of refugees from Turkey to the EU countries.
Turkey’s full integration with the EU remains a distant prospect but the proposed visa-free travel (plus the existing Customs Union arrangement) is major gain and the optics of it in the Turkish public opinion are simply brilliant for Davutoglu in political terms.
Simply put, Erdogan probably decided to ease out Davutoglu just as the latter was acquiring a stature of his own among European statesmen (and in Turkey itself) as a ‘westernizer’ in the Islamic government. The heart of the matter is that strong leaders like Erdogan are also prone to insecurities.
Davutoglu is in the mould of former president late Turgut Ozal who can be considered the father-figure of ‘neo-Ottomaniam” in foreign policy but is at the same time also credited with the ‘globalization’ of Turkish economy.
Davutoglu’s sensibility is on the one hand Turkish and Muslim, while on the other hand is also westernized and democratic. He does not think that Turkey has to choose between the western and Turkish or Islamic civilizations. He is comfortable with the thought that Turks are European Muslims.
Thus, Davutoglu’s writings show that he is in his elements with liberalism, human rights, democracy and scientific and technological developments and he does not see Turkish culture being an obstacle to receive these values of the Enlightenment. Put differently, although a pious Muslim, he could accommodate his Islamic understanding in his westernizm.
Davutoglu’s exit puts 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 authoritarian rule.
A pundit at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy rightly noted that Erdogan will henceforth be the head of state, head of government, head of the ruling party and the “head of everything in Turkey”. Indeed, by easing out the Grand Vizier (as the post of prime minister was known under Ottomans), Erdogan has underscored his absolute power.
Being grand vizier was never a very secure position under the Ottoman Sultans. Forty-four grand viziers were, in fact, executed at the orders of the Sultan out of the 284 who held that position. Come to think of it, Davutoglu is lucky.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.