Why Turkey's Prime Minister Had No Choice But to Resign

Updated: May 05, 2016 9:37 PM ET

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned on Thursday in a dramatic move that clears the path for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to further consolidate his already extensive power. Davutoglu’s departure comes as Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials AKP) are preparing a campaign to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of government with a presidential system, a shift that could cement Erdogan’s control of the Turkish state for years to come.

Regarded as a thoughtful and competent leader, Davutoglu replaced Erdogan as prime minister in 2014, more than a decade after the AKP came to power. Alongside Erdogan, he was a key public face of the party when it won a comeback victory in the country’s November 2015 parliamentary election, five months after the AKP had shocked experts by losing its majority in a previous election.

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In a televised address announcing his resignation, Davutoglu hinted at recent problems with Erdogan, but seemed to accept his departure from power. “The fact that my term lasted far shorter than four years is not a decision of mine but a necessity,” he said, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. He said he would continue his friendship with Erdogan “until my last breath.” He added, “The honor of our president is my honor. His family is my family.”

As prime minister, the more moderate Davutoglu had been the formal head of government in Turkey, but he was widely regarded as governing under the long shadow of Erdogan, the more ambitious and ultimately the more powerful of the two. With the former prime minister sidelined, analysts say Erdogan has removed one of his only potential rivals for power within the state.

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While the two politicians had been friends and allies for years, recent signs of tension between the two had become clear. Last week, the AKP stripped the prime minister of the power to appoint provincial-level officials. The two had also publicly disagreed over whether to resume negotiations with Kurdish militants whom the Turkish military is fighting in the country’s southeast.

“Part of it is that Erdogan did not believe Davutoglu gave his full backing to the presidential agenda," says Sinan Ulgen. An Istanbul-based visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. "The other part is that Davutoglu himself wishing to carve out an independent political space."

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“I think this is an indication that the country is switching at least to a de facto presidential system, and therefore the next government under the next prime minister will have an even smaller independent political space than the Davutoglu executive."

The leaders of two key opposition parties denounced the move as a power grab. At a news conference in Ankara, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the secular Republican People’s Party, which holds the second largest number of seats in parliament, told reporters, “All democracy supporters must resist this palace coup.”

Davutoglu’s exit comes as the ruling AKP continues to sideline and constrain political opponents. On Monday, a parliamentary committee approved a bill that would strip lawmakers of judicial immunity, a measure that would clear the way for prosecutions of opposition leaders. Before the vote, members of the AKP and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) engaged in a physical brawl in the house of parliament.

Erdogan has called for prosecutions of members of the HDP, accusing the officials of links to outlawed Kurdish militants. The HDP, which entered parliament for the first time last June, rejects those accusations.

In addition to bitter parliamentary politics, Turkey is also grappling with a lethal conflict with Kurdish insurgents, a wave of attacks by ISIS militants, and the presence of more than 2.7 million refugees who fled the civil war in neighboring Syria. But the sense of growing instability and violence may have actually helped cement the AKP’s grip on power. After losing its majority in the parliament, called the Grand National Assembly, in an election in June 2015, coalition talks failed. In the meantime, fighting resumed in the Kurdish-majority southeast and ISIS carried out a series of lethal bombings in the country. When voters returned to the polls, they restored the AKP’s majority.

Following the election, the government intensified the military campaign on Kurdish militants and also expanded what opponents say is a broad effort to restrict freedom of expression, including arrests and prosecutions of dissident journalists and academics. Erdogan’s critics argue that those and other measures signal an embrace of an increasingly authoritarian form of governance.

At key points in the recent season of political violence in Turkey, Davutoglu has been a more conciliatory leader than Erdogan. When Davutoglu hinted in April at a possible willingness to resume of peace talks with Kurdish militants, Erdogan ruled out any negotiations, saying the government would continue battling the insurgents “until the last weapon is silenced.”

Observers also point to a broader distinction in style between the two leaders. Davutoglu, a former diplomat and foreign minister, is an intellectual and the author of books on Turkish foreign policy and political theory. Erdogan is a former mayor of Istanbul and semi-professional soccer player, and analysts say he is increasingly intent on securing his own enduring power in the state. “I think that if Davutoglu resigned this is because Erdogan told him to resign,” says Bayram Balci, an expert on Turkish politics at Sciences Po in Paris. “The two leaders can not work together anymore. Erdogan is not satisfied with Davutolgu’s too soft and diplomatic style in the management of the country and in the management of certain issues between Turkey and Europe."

Davutoglu’s resignation also raises questions about the future of a controversial agreement between Turkey and the European Union to accept refugees denied entry to Greece in exchange for allowing some refugees to fly to Europe. Davutoglu was the architect of the agreement, which went into effect last month. Davutoglu was considered the more pro-European of the two leaders.

With a possible rival now ejected from political life, Erdogan and his party are expected to continue with an existing plan to transform Turkey’s government into a presidential system. Burak Kadercan, an expert on Turkish politics at the U.S. Naval War College, said Davotuglu’s demise was a sign that Erdogan is “gearing up for the next move.”

“I’m not surprised at all that Davutoglu is stepping down. From the get-go I considered him a placeholder,” he says. “I think at this moment, Erdogan needs someone with a lower profile.”

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