It was a political finale lasting all of an hour and 40 minutes.
That was the time it took for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to eject his hand-picked Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, in a meeting this week, forfeiting the West its most reliable negotiating partner in Turkey.
Yet Davutoğlu’s demise has been in the cards for months. His loyalty to the President had started to fray as far back as December 2014 when the Prime Minister argued that four ex-ministers accused of corruption must be tried in court, contrary to the wishes of Erdoğan.
The four – casualties of the December 2013 corruption probes against Erdoğan’s personal crony networks – were ultimately protected from the Supreme Court. But Davutoğlu’s stepping out of line would not be forgotten.
The Prime Minister has always been in the shadow of the President, who selected him on the understanding that he would be a compliant foil as Erdoğan pushed to shift the constitution towards an executive presidential system. For Davutoğlu to deviate signaled an attempt to chart an individual course within the ruling AK Party.
After a month of growing speculation over his future, Davutoğlu on Thursday announced his resignation as leader of the AKP and, therefore, Prime Minister. He has said he won’t run for the leadership at an extraordinary party conference, now scheduled for May 22.
Politics in Turkey must be understood through the paradigm of Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. The current parliamentary system bounds the President to political impartiality as head of state.
It has never been Erdoğan’s intention to act within these constraints and since assuming the Presidency, he has established his own ‘shadow cabinet’ in areas where his own personal influence hasn’t sufficed.
Speculation is rife that he will formally initiate a campaign for constitutional change over the course of this coming summer. His team – briefly chastened by the loss of the June 2015 election before September’s landslide victory – has quickly shifted gear into public calls for a more permanent reform to ease limits on his executive control.
The clinical dispatch of Davutoğlu is part of the continuum of Erdoğan’s pre-campaign strategy. He has spent the last seven months marginalizing political opposition to his ambition.
A well documented crackdown on dissenting media has been accompanied by a concerted attempt to purge Turkey’s bureaucracy of affiliates of the Gülen movement, a secretive organisation accused by Erdoğan of terror links.
Erdoğan ensured that the AKP’s Central Decision and Executive Board, known as MKYK, was overwhelmingly manned by his loyalists, much to the apparent chagrin of Davutoğlu. The Prime Minister was reportedly silenced with the prospect of a leadership challenge from Erdoğan’s long-time ally, Binali Yıldırım, now Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
It was the 50-member MKYK that on Monday voted overwhelmingly to strip the Prime Minister of the authority to appoint AKP officials, a role it had previously gifted to Erdoğan when he was Prime Minister in 2002.
While sidelining his Prime Minister, the President has increasingly attacked mainstream opposition parties in his effort to discredit and isolate any potential dissent, accusing both the Republican Peoples’ Party, or CHP, and the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) of terrorist sympathies.
A motion publicly supported by Erdoğan and his allies to strip parliamentary immunity from sitting deputies is particularly concerning. The HDP, a pro-Kurdish party, currently has 278 prosecution charges outstanding against their politicians. Of the HDP’s 59 deputies, 46 stand to lose their immunity and risk imprisonment.
The resulting by-election would heavily favor the AKP’s party machine – the only real challenger for HDP seats. The AKP only needs 13 more seats to acquire the 330 that would allow it to take constitutional reform to a popular referendum.
The political disruption will add to the multitude of concerns for investors over Turkey. A succession of suicide bombings from both Islamic State and factions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have underlined successive policy missteps in Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s foreign and domestic security agenda.
The much-vaunted ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy developed by Davutoğlu during his time as Foreign Minister has been shattered amid the carnage of the Syrian civil war and aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The economy is fragile. Growth will probably slow to 3.5% this year; as a net energy importer, Turkey benefits from low global oil prices, but there are pressing structural issues that remain unaddressed.
It is in Erdoğan’s interest to secure his unchallenged position before the specter of credit default becomes a reality for Turkish companies. Perhaps as many as 14,800 Turkish private companies are predicted to go bankrupt over the course of 2016, an 8% increase from last year.
The lira plummeted against the dollar as the news of Davutoğlu’s imminent departure became public. Of particular concern is the implication for the central bank’s newly appointed Governor, Murat Çetinkaya.
A compromise choice between the Prime Minister and Erdoğan, Çetinkaya had been expected to tackle Turkey’s high inflation without massively raising interest rates. The President is notorious for his hands-on and unorthodox approach to influencing monetary policy, and the departure of Çetinkaya’s patron signals potential for pressure.
As for Turkey’s next prime minister, two names stand out. The most prominent is Binali Yıldırım.
After his disappointment at Davutoğlu’s resistance, Erdoğan will favor a PM who he can rely upon to follow his wishes to the letter.
Yıldırım’s ties go way back; he first worked with the President during Erdoğan’s time as Mayor of Istanbul, when Yıldırım was director general of the Istanbul Fast Ferries Company. His star rose with Erdoğan’s and he served in the cabinet when Erdoğan became Prime Minister.
After being replaced in a cabinet reshuffle following the December 2013 corruption investigations, Yıldırım was swiftly appointed as an advisor to Erdoğan.
Notably, it was Yıldırım who is reported to have publicly challenged Davutoğlu during the September 2015 AKP congress elections to the MKYK. The Prime Minister was resisting the selection of so many clients and affiliates of the President to the MKYK, that, two days before the congress convened, Erdoğan allegedly permitted Yıldırım to canvass for signatures in support of a leadership challenge.
With such support forthcoming, Davutoğlu was forced to back down. Intriguingly, on April 19, the independent newspaper, Sözcü, published photos of Yıldırım’s son gambling in Singapore. It is widely speculated that the photos were leaked by members of Davutoğlu’s team in order to discredit Yıldırım’s chances of a leadership challenge.
While the choice of Yıldırım would herald unchecked leadership, there are yet more worrying candidates.
Also branded as a possible successor is the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Berat Albayrak.
In spite of only becoming a parliamentary deputy last June and a minister in November, Albayrak has one key advantage: he happens to be Erdoğan’s son in law.
In the vacuous interim between the failed June election and November’s victory, Albayrak along with two of Erdoğan’s closest advisors were reportedly setting official Treasury policy. Photos of the trio accompanying the President to meetings with World Bank officials appear to support such reports.
In September 2015, Albayrak was elected to sit on the MKYK. He has risen with unprecedented speed through the ranks of the elite – a testament both to the power of informal kinship networks in Turkish politics and the President’s determination to build a loyal network to back his agenda.
For now, at least, however, elevating Albayrak to Prime Minister might seem a bridge too far for the credibility of the AKP – even to Erdoğan.
Jack Kennedy is the lead Middle East & North Africa analyst at West Sands Advisory Ltd. An Arabic speaker, Jack has traveled the wider region and last worked in Egypt in 2014 with the European External Action Service. West Sands Advisory is a business intelligence and geo-political risk advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets. More information at www.westsandsadvisory.com