BACKGROUND: The appointment of Ahmet Davutoğlu as the leader of the AKP after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enshrines the end of the old AKP and ushers the party into a new era. Erdoğan’s selection of Davutoğlu as his successor marked the definitive break with the original co-founders of the party – Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç. The outgoing President Gül made a bid to return to the party and assume its leadership, but Erdoğan ensured that the attempt came to naught by deciding that the party congress was convened on August 27, the day before Gül hands over the presidency to Erdoğan.
The treatment of Gül caused his wife, Hayrünnisa Gül, to make unprecedented statements last week at a reception hosted by the outgoing president at the presidential residence for journalists. Mrs. Gül publicly denounced the articles that have appeared in the pro-AKP press denigrating her husband and his associates, and she refused to shake the hand of Abdülkadir Selvi, the Ankara Bureau Chief of the main pro-AKP daily, Yeni Şafak, saying that “I am very disappointed with you, and I will not shake your hand.” Mrs. Gül also expressed her disgust over the treatment to which her husband had been subjected, saying that it was unparalleled; “We didn’t even experience such things during the February 28 process,” a reference to the period following the “post-modern” coup in 1997, when the state establishment persecuted the Islamists.
Not staying at that, Mrs. Gül vowed to start an “intifada.” Abdullah Gül himself made clear – although in the much more circumspect way that characterizes him – that he is unhappy with the course of the party of which he was a co-founder, and as he pointed out, the author of its program. Gül hinted that he has not given up his ambition to play a leading role in politics in the future.
For the moment, the new AKP is left in the hands of a younger generation that owes its ascent to Erdoğan and that is devoted to him alone. But the AKP faces new challenges that will put it to test, starting with the parliamentary election next year. Erdoğan will certainly continue to call the shots, but the new leader of the AKP and the new prime minister could not just be a technocrat and/or a simple care-taker. The new leader had to be someone ambitious and charismatic enough to ensure that the party secures another convincing victory in the parliamentary election. The result will need to be well above the level attained in the local elections in March this year – when the AKP received 44 percent – if the party is to assemble the majority necessary to change the constitution, formally introducing the presidential system that Erdoğan in practice will have put in place. But at the same time, the new leader had to be someone who naturally defers to Erdoğan’s authority. Davutoğlu fits this profile perfectly.
IMPLICATIONS: Even though Davutoğlu has been appointed to play second fiddle, his appointment has ideological implications. It hints at where the course of the new AKP is likely to lead Turkey: it represents a doubling down on the party’s Sunni Islamic ideology.
The selection of Davutoğlu was celebrated by pro-government pundits as heralding nothing less than the birth of a “New Turkey.” The editor-in-chief of the daily Yeni Şafak, which is in fact the leading messenger of the ruling party, wrote that Davutoğlu’s appointment “represents one of the most crucial thresholds of the New Turkey project.” The editorial assured that “the New Turkey is not a slogan: It is the project to redesign Turkey, to found it again after a hundred years.”
The rhetoric is suggestive of the ideas and of the worldview that animate Erdoğan’s regime. It is directly inspired by what Davutoğlu himself has been saying and writing for more than two decades. Like no other representative of Turkey’s Islamic movement, Davutoğlu has provided it with a historical and ideological narrative that explains and justifies the AKP’s political mission in terms that explicitly negate the ideas that have inspired Ottoman and Turkish modernizers – from the first modernizing Ottoman pashas that set the course of the empire toward the West at the beginning of the 19th century to the modern-day followers of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic that is now to be “re-founded.”
Davutoğlu stated as much last year, when he said “It is now high time to close a hundred year old parenthesis.” Davutoğlu’s writings leave no doubt that his is an unabashedly imperial vision, one in which Turkey ascends to its proper place as one of the greater powers of the world. There was a time when Davutoğlu’s extravagant vision was hailed in the West and by Turkish liberals. It was assumed that the closing of the “hundred year old parenthesis” meant that Turkey was breaking out of the isolation to which the Kemalist tradition allegedly had confined the country, and that Davutoğlu was a benevolent liberal internationalist, seeking “zero problems with neighbors.”
However, Davutoğlu has been taking issue not only with what was – in his view – an allegedly passive foreign policy but also, much more fundamentally, he has been challenging – as an intellectual and as a policy maker – the very tradition that has defined Turkey’s historical “parenthesis,” which was defined by the ambition to become a part of the West. Tellingly, Davutoğlu takes issue not only with the Kemalists, but also with those conservatives who have been as zealous as the Kemalists in their desire to make Turkey a part of the West. Davutoğlu thus condemned Turgut Özal, the former president and prime minister who, in 1987, took the historical step of applying for Turkish membership in the European Community. Özal was a religious conservative and economic liberal. But in Davutoğlu’s view Özal committed the same mistake as the 19th century Ottoman reformist pashas who sought to save the empire by forging ties of friendship with the West. Instead, Davutoğlu prescribes Islamic solidarity as the right course for Turkey.
Davutoğlu is going to be something much more than Erdoğan’s loyal lieutenant: while Erdoğan will continue to wield absolute power, the discourse that legitimizes this power will be provided by Davutoğlu, the ideologue of the “new Turkey.” The editor-in-chief of Yeni Şafak announced that “the legacies of the Seljuks and the Ottomans are going to be rekindled,” and that the new Turkey is going to be a power that “challenges” and redesigns its neighborhood.
Davutoğlu’s record as foreign minister has demonstrated that the ambitions to redesign the neighborhood translates into both indirect and direct support to Sunni radicals and jihadi groups. Today, Turkey is diplomatically more isolated in the Middle East than it has ever been. Turkey has no ambassadorial presence in Egypt, Syria or Israel. The question is how successful Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are going to be in their quest to redesign Turkey itself.
The self-confident rhetoric about the “new Turkey” masks what is in fact a fragile reality, not least in terms of the economic conditions on which the success of the AKP so far has depended. The rhetoric about “re-founding” Turkey and closing a “parenthesis of hundred years” may betray insecurity. Erdoğan may not yet be confident that he is out of the woods: he has continued to emphasize that his first priority as president is going to be to remove the “parallel structure,” meaning the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, his erstwhile ally turned enemy, within the bureaucracy and the judiciary. The Gülenists remain entrenched within the highest levels of the judiciary and they have on several occasions lately demonstrated that they are able to block the AKP government’s attempt to establish full control over the judiciary, which has provoked furious reactions from Erdoğan. Earlier this week, Erdoğan called the judges on the High Appeals Court “Hashashins,” not the first time he compared the Gülenists to the medieval Islamic fanatical sect.
It is probably not beyond Erdoğan’s means to neutralize the Gülenist threat, but much more threatening for the long-term prospects of his regime is the fact that its material foundations are more fragile than they may appear at a superficial glance. The Turkish economy has grown significantly during the last decade, but it has not acquired the kind of strength that secures sustained economic growth and stability.
Turkey has accumulated a foreign debt of US$ 400 billion that finances an internal consumption that – alongside construction – boosts the growth figures. However, there has been no corresponding leap in industrial production or development of industrial quality. High-value added products make up less than 2 percent of Turkish exports, and no attempt is made by the AKP government to address the structural problem caused by a poorly educated population. Education policies are geared toward raising more imams than scientists. Since 2010, the Ministry of Education has implemented an increase of 73 percent in the number of imam-hatip schools; during the same period, the number of high schools that offer professional and technical education – which is of mostly poor quality – increased by only 23 percent.
CONCLUSIONS: The ideological discourse is intended to keep the conservatives energized, to provide the exercise of power with a legitimizing and exciting ideological narrative. But the superstructure – ideology, state power – ultimately depends on the base, on the productive forces in society. “Turkey’s political course is determined by the interests of business,” noted Abdullah Gül in a recent speech. Turkey’s history provides many examples of governments doomed by their failure to create the right conditions for a thriving economy.
Rhetorical assurances that a “new Turkey” has come into being, and that he past has been swept away, is not indefinitely going to be a substitute for the kind of material progress absent which the prospects for the “new Turkey” and its power-holders look bleak.
Halil Karaveli is Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: www.securityconference.de, Wikimedia Commons)