May 05, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister announced Thursday that he will stand down, giving the country’s increasingly authoritarian president free reign to appoint someone less likely to challenge him —a development that could have implications for Turkey’s internal conflicts and external relations.

NATO member Turkey is crucial to the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State group and also is playing a pivotal role in stemming Europe’s migrant crisis. But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s announcement that he will step down May 22 comes amid increasing turbulence at home: a resurgent conflict with Kurdish militants, six major suicide attacks in less than a year and an increasingly shaky economy.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was already Turkey’s dominant figure, but Davutoglu’s resignation effectively deprives the country of a moderating influence. The shake-up is widely seen as the result of irreconcilable differences between Erdogan, who would like to see the country transition to a presidential system, and his once-trusted aide, who declined a backseat role.

Erdogan has taken an increasingly hard-line stance on issues ranging from freedom of expression to the peaceful resolution of a three-decade conflict with Kurdish rebels. He has ratcheted up his anti-Western rhetoric, accusing allies of trying to hold back a rising Turkey.

The president has launched nearly 2,000 legal cases against people accused of insulting him. He wants to expand the definition of “terrorist” to include anyone who supports or lends a voice to a terrorist organization, including scholars, journalists and legislators — which has alarmed human rights activists and Western officials.

Erdogan has been emboldened by more than a decade of electoral victories and a long period of economic growth. Part of his appeal to many Turks stems from the strongman persona. The bookish Davutoglu, a former foreign minister whom Erdogan picked to replace him as premier when he won the presidency in 2014, offered Europe and the U.S. an easier and more diplomatic partner. But allies knew well that there were clear limits to his power.

Retired U.S. Ambassador W. Robert Pearson, who was posted in Turkey from 2000 to 2003, says he doesn’t expect a “radical change” of direction in U.S-Turkey relations because “Mr. Davutoglu clearly followed Mr. Erdogan’s lead in foreign affairs and this split is over domestic affairs.”

There is, however, a risk that the political upheaval will add a “new element of confusion” to the relationship, he said — and there is a “greater risk” now that Turkey will focus more on action against the Kurds and less on action against IS.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest praised Davutoglu as a “good partner” for the U.S. who had demonstrated leadership, but said the U.S. didn’t anticipate that his resignation would affect the countries’ ability to work together.

The shake-up will likely have a greater impact on Turkish-EU relations. Davutoglu was the chief negotiator in a high-stakes deal to stem the flow of migrants to Greece and beyond, and European leaders will be keen to assess Turkey’s future intentions.

Davutoglu’s announcement came a day after the European Union’s executive Commission recommended approval of a deal to give Turkish citizens the right to travel to the EU without visas. Analysts say the next premier will likely try to push forward the constitutional reforms needed for Turkey to move to a presidential system. Erdogan has already overstepped the traditional presidential mandate by chairing Cabinet meetings.

“This development is likely to consolidate Erdogan’s power and speed up his authoritarian agenda,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Likely candidates to succeed Davutoglu include Erdogan loyalists such as Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, and even Erdogan’s son-in-law, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak. The new leader of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, who will also become the new premier, will be chosen at an emergency party convention May 22.

Erdogan has shown no hesitation to eliminate rivals in the past. They include two co-founders of the party that has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, ex-President Abullah Gul and former deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc.

“Despite constitutional constraints that require the president to remain above party politics, Mr. Erdogan remains the de-facto leader of the AKP with unrivalled support within the party and among the public,” said Robert O’Daly, lead Turkey analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Davutoglu sought to downplay his rift with Erdogan as he made his resignation announcement, saying he would “continue the struggle” as an AKP legislator and pledging loyalty to the president. However, the political uncertainty has unsettled financial markets. On Wednesday, as rumors swirled that Davutoglu was about to quit, the Turkish lira dropped by more than 4 percent against the dollar. On Thursday, it recovered some of its losses.

Some observers fear a change in prime minister could hurt the economy. “A key area of concern is the economic policy portfolio,” said O’Daly. It is currently held by deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek, closer to Davutoglu than Erdogan.

Divisions between Erdogan and Davutoglu first surfaced over the conflict with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s southeast. Erdogan lambasted Davutoglu after he spoke of the possibility of resuming peace talks with Kurdish rebels.

The gulf widened over Davutoglu’s opposition to the pre-trial detention of journalists accused of spying and academics accused of voicing support for the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Erdogan spurned his premier and even suggested that anyone deemed to be supportive of extremists should be stripped of citizenship.

But what sealed Davutoglu’s demise was his lukewarm support for a powerful presidential system. An anonymous Turkish blog titled “Pelican Brief,” which many believe was penned by people close to Erdogan, listed that among the presidential camp’s disappointments with Davutoglu.

Announcing his resignation, Davutoglu stressed that he never intended to be a caretaker prime minister. He recalled that when he handed over the party leadership to Davutoglu in 2014, Erdogan said: “This is the era of a strong president and a strong prime minister.”

“That was the right approach,” Davutoglu said.

Dominique Soguel reported from Istanbul.

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