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Turkey’s Davutoglu Leaves as He Led: Compliantly

Ahmet Davutoğlu, who as Turkish prime minister had compliantly followed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s orders with only an occasional hint of protest, compliantly stepped down on Erdoğan’s orders with only a hint of protest.

Following a two-and-a-half hour meeting with Erdoğan, Davutoğlu announced that, though it was “not his preference,” he would be giving up his position to preserve “the unity and cohesion” of his party. The decision, Erdoğan subsequently stated, had been entirely Davutoğlu’s own.

Among Erdoğan supporters, there was surprising candor about the fact that Davutoğlu needed to go precisely because his behavior toward Erdoğan had not been compliant enough. Indeed, Davutoğlu’s removal was preceded by a lengthy attack on a mysterious blog called the Pelican Brief. The author, widely assumed to be close to Erdoğan, accused Davutoğlu of diverse disloyalties to the president: Davutoğlu had not done enough to promote a presidential referendum enhancing Erdoğan’s powers, and when others criticized Erdoğan he failed to say a word in the president’s defense. What’s more, Davutoğlu shamelessly tried to take credit for the refugee deal he negotiated with the EU, and was reticent about prosecuting academics and Kurdish lawmakers.

Davutoglu’s departure, and his presumed replacement by someone even more loyal to Erdoğan, reveals that any hopes of the prime minister serving as an institutional counterweight to Erdoğan underestimated the extent of the power Erdoğan had already amassed. As the only other founding member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that had maintained any degree of political stature, Davutoğlu inevitably became a rallying point for those uncomfortable with Erdoğan’s rule. As a result, however meek Davutoğlu may have been in trying to retain some independence, his eventual removal may have been equally inevitable.

So what does this development mean for Turkey’s foreign and domestic politics? In addition to being the strategic architect behind much of Turkey’s foreign policy over the last decade and a half, Davutoğlu was also one of the more consistently diplomatic faces of Turkish diplomacy. In his relationships with European leaders, as well as a recent bid to secure a last-minute meeting with the White House, Davutoğlu sought to bolster his position by presenting himself as a key figure in maintaining crucial international partnerships.

In contrast to Erdoğan’s confrontational bluster, Davutoğlu seemed to genuinely believe in his famous policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” even as it came apart amidst regional turmoil and its own internal contradictions. When Turkish foreign policy floundered in recent years, Davutoğlu’s academic background still helped impart an appearance of cohesion to it. No one necessarily read all of Davutoğlu’s 650-page treatise Strategic Depth or knew what he meant by the “Rimland Belt,” but its mere existence helped convince supporters and critics alike that for better or worse there was an intellectual depth to Turkish policies. With Davutoğlu gone, Turkish foreign policy under Erdoğan is not only likely to be more erratic and personalized but, as importantly, it will almost certainly look more erratic and personalized.

In some cases, Erdoğan may now have the opportunity to reconfigure his approach to the region, perhaps pursuing more conciliatory policies toward Egypt, Israel, or Syria by publicly blaming Davutoğlu for recent estrangements. But in other crucial areas it appears conciliation will now be harder to come by. Erdoğan had already made it quite clear that he had no intention of returning to negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But the criticism Davutoğlu faced for even entertaining the idea makes peace an even more distant prospect. Similarly, there were already numerous obstacles facing the Turkish-EU refugee deal, but without Davutoğlu it is less likely that Turkish citizens will see any benefits from a smoother relationship with Europe. Following Davutoğlu’s removal, it seems more and more people in Turkey are bracing themselves to for a period of extreme turbulence, nervously hoping that the country’s politics will somehow, someday stabilize.

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