Tensions surface between Turkish president, prime minister

May 4, 2016 GMT

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Long-denied tensions between Turkey’s president and prime minister are beginning to surface publicly, leading to speculation from political observers that the country’s powerful leader may be considering replacing the premier with a figure more willing to take a backseat role.

The rift comes at a precarious time for Turkey, which is gripped by a surge in violent attacks perpetrated by Kurdish and Islamic State militants. The country has also seen renewed fighting with the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and growing spillover from the war in neighboring Syria, including a refugee and migrant crisis.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hand-picked Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to succeed him as premier and leader of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, after he was elected president in 2014. Davutoglu was largely expected to play second fiddle as Erdogan pushed ahead with plans to make the largely ceremonial presidency into an all-powerful position.

The president, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, is pressing for a new constitution to change Turkey’s political system to a presidential one, which would push his prime minister deeper into the shadows.

Davutoglu, an independent-minded former professor, adviser to Erdogan and foreign minister, is struggling to be his own man.

He has offered half-hearted support at best to an all-powerful presidential system and has also established himself as a moderating influence on an array of issues, by opposing, for example, the pre-trial imprisonment of academics or journalists. He has also addressed the possibility of the resumption of a peace process with Kurdish rebels. Some observers even call him the voice of reason in the party.

 But he has also been the architect of Turkey’s policy in the region and particularly Syria — one that has massively backfired. Turkey is vulnerable to terrorism attacks, cross-border rocket fire from IS, and has few friends left in the region.

“This was a foreign policy that was meant to make Turkey a regional star, not only shape the outcome of the Syrian war,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute.

 Sacrificing Davutoglu would allow Erdogan to distance himself from these failures, Cagaptay said.

Tensions between the two men were exposed this week, when the AKP’s executive committee — dominated by Erdogan loyalists — seized Davutoglu’s powers to appoint local and provincial leaders, further weakening his grip on the party. This development was billed as a “coup” against Davutoglu by independent media.

Divisions between the Erdogan and Davutoglu camp spilled into the open over the conflict with Kurdish militants in the southeast. Erdogan took issue with Davutoglu after he spoke of the possibility of resuming peace talks with the PKK if it withdraws its armed fighters from Turkish territory. Erdogan said in a public speech that it was out of the question for the peace process to restart, saying military operations would continue until the very last rebel is killed and the PKK threat is removed.

More fissures were apparent over Davutoglu’s opposition to the pre-trial detention of journalists accused of spying and academics accused of voicing support for the PKK. Erdogan spurned Davutoglu and even suggested that anyone deemed to be supportive of extremists should be stripped of their citizenship.

On Wednesday evening, many speculated that an unscheduled meeting between the two men would result in Davutoglu’s resignation.

No announcement was issued after the meeting, but that doesn’t mean the prime minister is in the clear. Analysts point out that Erdogan has shown no hesitation in the past to sidelining rivals even when they come from within the party.

Unconfirmed news reports suggested Davutoglu would call an emergency convention of the ruling party at the end of the month and step down then.

“While Erdogan and Davutoglu may appear keen to dispel any notions that divisions are emerging between them, the writing on the wall shows that a rift is in fact developing on a number of levels, and it is just a matter of time before this erupts in earnest,” wrote Semih Idiz, a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News newspaper.

Journalist and political commentator Mustafa Akyol said Davutoglu was likely to step down and be replaced with a figure “100 percent loyal to Erdogan.”

“Davutoglu will never be comfortable being prime minister after being targeted and seeing his powers decrease,” Akyol, who writes for the Al-Monitor website, told The Associated Press. “It is not something that will make Turkey look good. The accusations of authoritarianism (against Erdogan) will be more legitimate. Criticisms about a one-man show will be emboldened.”

The gulf between the two leaders has led others to attack Davutoglu, seen as the weaker of the two.

Nasuhi Gungor, a prominent pro-Erdogan journalist, said the AKP can “no longer carry on” with Davutoglu and that the party should find itself a new path. Gungor, among other things, accused the Davutoglu government of not being active enough in going after supporters of U.S.-based Muslim cleric, who has become the president’s chief foe.

An anonymous blog — believed to have been authored by Erdogan aides or a pro-Erdogan journalists — aired the presidential camp’s alleged grievances with Davutoglu, including not advocating the presidential system strongly enough or defending Erdogan against opposition parties’ allegations of corruption against the president.

During an address to party legislators on Tuesday, Davutoglu mounted a veiled attack on the authors of the blog calling them “virtual charlatans.”

He said he would “step aside if necessary,” adding that he would never “back down from the truth we believe in and clean politics.”

Critics fear that a presidential system sought by Erdogan will further erode Turkey’s checks and balances leading to one-man rule. Erdogan has already overstepped the traditional mandate of a president by chairing Cabinet meetings. He is also largely believed to steer the Cabinet to a certain extent through ministers loyal to him, including son-in-law Berat Albayrak, the energy minister. 

Erdogan has also appointed an army of advisers who are accused of running a “shadow Cabinet” at his huge new presidential palace which boasts 1,150 rooms, apparently built in anticipation of Turkey’s possible switch to a presidential system.


Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed.