Tuesday 12 December 2017

Resignation opens door for Turkey's Erdogan to take greater control

Former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan

Mary Fitzgerald

For several years Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pursuit of power has seen the country drifting towards authoritarianism. The departure this week of Erdogan's once close political ally, prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who had quietly tried to rein in the president's overweening ambition, brings his goal of creating an executive presidency closer to reality.

Any political turmoil in Turkey echoes far beyond its borders, particularly at this moment. The country is a strategic Nato ally in the battle against Isil next door in Syria, and is currently grappling with internal security threats from both Isil and Kurdish militants. The European Union also sees Turkey as a crucial partner in stemming the flow of refugees who use the country as a transit point to get to Europe. Davutoglu was Ankara's negotiator in the controversial recent migrant deal between Turkey and the EU. Now that Davutoglu has exited the prime minister's office, the future of that agreement may be in doubt.

Under the 'swap' deal, which was roundly criticised by human rights groups, Turkey will take back migrants who travelled from Turkey to Greece. For every migrant who is returned to Turkey, the EU has pledged to resettle one Syrian refugee in Europe. It has also promised to provide Turkey with €6bn of funding to help it cope with more than two million Syrian refugees who have sought sanctuary within its borders. Other EU sweeteners offered to Turkey were visa-free travel for Turkey's 80 million citizens and accelerating Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the union.

I met Davutoglu when he visited Ireland as foreign minister in 2010, the year before the series of uprisings and revolutions that became known as the Arab Spring upended so many dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa, including Davutoglu's carefully calibrated 'zero problems with neighbours' policy. Ankara backed the uprising against Syria's president Bashar al Assad, allowing fighters and weaponry to flow over its border. Davutoglu was the architect of Turkey's Syria policy and he has been forced to carry the blame for the subsequent blowback it has experienced in the form of terrorist attacks and millions of refugees.

In Dublin, Davutoglu came across as bookish and mild-mannered, a strong contrast to Erdogan's bruising personality, which Turks often ascribe to his childhood in the hardscrabble Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa. Davutoglu praised Ireland for its support for Turkey's accession to the EU, saying Ankara viewed Ireland as one of the strongest backers for its attempt to join the bloc.

Davutoglu's departure this week is the latest intrigue to beset the AKP, a party with Islamist roots founded by Erdogan. In addition to stepping down as prime minister this week, Davutoglu said he would also give up his position as party leader. He has long been one of its intellectual heavyweights.

The AKP has governed Turkey since 2002. During Erdogan's first years in power, he oversaw an economic boom and appeared to be serious about reforms that would help the country's EU bid. But in recent years, a purging of the judiciary, the persecution of journalists and the crushing of anti-government protests have hinted at a more authoritarian streak.

Davutoglu's exit is also being viewed as another step towards weakening Turkey's parliamentary system in favour of a more powerful presidency. Under the current constitution the prime minister wields more power. Davutoglu was understood to be wary of Erdogan's push for a stronger executive with him at the helm. The two men were also increasingly at odds over other issues, including economic policy and the treatment of activists critical of the government. With their country pummelled by multiple crises both external and internal, many Turks believe they can ill-afford another round of political turmoil like that experienced last year. Then Turkish stocks fell and the lira lost against the dollar when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority before seizing it back in a snap election.

Erdogan, whose populist approach has ensured he retains high levels of support among Turkey's masses, is not likely to experience any political fall-out from Davutoglu's departure. Instead Erdogan is expected to have a hand in the selection of the new prime minister, most likely someone who will not challenge his attempt to amend the constitution and create a presidential system. Amid such political upheaval, what happens to Turkey's relations with the EU, including its recently inked migrant deal, remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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