Ahmet Davutoglu has served Recep Tayyip Erdogan loyally for over a decade, first as his chief advisor (2003-2009), then as foreign minister (2009-2014), and finally as prime minister until his forced resignation on May 5. Loyalty is no longer enough: Erdogan now demands unquestioning obedience from his team, and Davutoglu’s willingness to provide it has become uncertain.
The new tone of public discourse in Turkey is vividly summarized in a recent Al Monitor article. “Obedience to the leader is a must,” Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek thus wrote on May 10: “The concept of a leader and absolute obedience to this leader exists in our faith, in our state tradition.” Three days earlier a pro-AKP columnist praised the nation’s unbreakable love for Erdogan, thanks to his “manliness, faith, success, courage,” which could not be weakened by sinister criticism “such as authoritarianism, patriarchy, cult of the leader, dictatorship or corruption.” Another pro-Erdogan pundit used Islamic religious imagery to condemn Davutoglu for not being fully obedient to Erdogan: “He saw obedience as being low, just like Satan.” Various Kuranic references are now used to assert that those who do not obey Erdogan “will lose both this world and the afterlife!” Such notions, which would have seemed eccentric if not insane but a few years ago, are now commonplace in the Erdoganist camp.
Davutoglu’s “disobedience” was detected primarily in his insufficient enthusiasm for Erdogan’s plan to change Turkey’s constitution and to secure sweeping executive powers for himself as president. Erdogan is determined to make this happen by hook or by crook. To that end he is likely to appoint a compliant prime minister who will follow his plan for securing a constitution-changing supermajority by removing the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputies from parliament on charges of collusion with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and having AKP loyalists elected in their stead. As prominent columnist Amberin Zaman has noted,
Coming on top of the collapse of a two-year cease-fire in August and a sharp escalation in violence between Turkish security forces and the PKK, the ouster of the HDP deputies would deal an additional blow to the country’s fraying democracy. It would also increase political instability and deepen the chasm between Turks and Kurds, perhaps even thrusting them into the intra-ethnic conflict [HDP leader Selahattin] Demirtas recently warned against.
Davutoglu is said to have warned of the dangers of following so reckless a course, but Erdogan is now prepared to play va banque. He feels emboldened by the absence of public criticism of his actions in the United States and in the European Union. The former need his help—however reluctantly provided thus far—in fighting the Islamic State, while the latter has succumbed to his blackmail over the migrant crisis. As a New Eastern Outlook columnist noted on May 13, “It seems that after Merkel’s and Obama’s continuous and fruitless attempts to deal with the migrant crisis by striking a deal with Erdogan, various EU politicians are starting to wake up to the fact that complicated matters cannot be solved by simply paying ransom.”
That awakening may come in the fulness of time, but for the time being Erdogan feels that he has a strong hand—and Chancellor Merkel has been untypically supine, even to the point of allowing prosecution of a German satirist for “insulting” the Turkish leader. He is gleefully asserting that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. It is no exaggeration to say that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought the EU to heel; “while the suppression of freedoms within Turkey is a tragedy, the extension of Erdogan’s repression inside the EU is a scandal.”
That scandal may end if Erdogan overplays his hand by treating close to three million refugees in Turkey like a loaded gun. Thanks in large part to Davutoglu’s complex and often crafty strategizing, for a decade after the AKP victory in November 2002 Erdogan had followed a successful “neo-Ottoman” strategy of expanding Turkey’s regional influence, while gradually dismantling the secularist legacy of Kemalism at home. To Davutoglu, neo-Ottomanism was more than ideology; as my friend, prominent Serbian islamologist Darko Tanaskovic summed it up in 2011, “it was a philosophy of history, a civilizational paradigm and a world outlook which reflects the views of many in today’s Turkish nation, especially among its intellectual elite.” As such, it had provided an effective strategic roadmap for Turkey’s foreign policy in the 2000’s. It was characterized by Davutoglu’s pragmatism and skill in pursuing twin objectives Turkey’s re-Islamization at home, and asserting a prominent geostrategic role in the region.
With Davutoglu’s demise Erdogan will be able to enforce complete obedience within his inner circle, but his decisions will no longer be subjected to critical scrutiny and strategic analysis. He will be less inclined to balance the risks and benefits of specific policy decisions. This tendency has been the fateful flaw of autocrats over the centuries, from Persia’s King of Kings to our own time.