Davutoğlu: Great expectations and doomed reputation

Davutoğlu aims to turn a new page in his political career with the launch of a new party, which, his spokepersons declare, is grounded on a revival of the “real AKP,” promising a resurrection of the original equilibrium sought to be achieved through the ‘Turkish model’ of moderate Islam. This appeal is expected to inflict damage on the AKP’s organizational structure and a haemorrhage in the electoral base.

“They are trying to defraud Halkbank.”

This is what President Erdoğan had to say about the role of his would be political rivals, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the former Minister of Finance Ali Babacan, in the financial controversy over the Şehir University. The high profile foundation university is facing closure or transfer of ownership for failing to repay loans owed to the state-owned lender. Erdoğan’s claim however has been perceived not as the expression of a presidential concern about some business irregularities but as an attempt to degrade the emerging oppositional figures from within the ranks of political Islam. Both Davutoğlu and Babacan are on the verge of forming new parties to challenge Erdoğan’s personal rule and their former political home the AKP. Former President Abdullah Gül, whose endorsement of Babacan’s initiative widely accepted, was also implicated by Erdoğan’s statement. Davutoğlu responded to this covert threat of political punishment through judicial instruments with a call for investigation into the economic assets and savings of the members of government and their families.

Initially, Şehir University was praised as the intellectual shop-window of the AKP: an exclusively Islamist/conservative academic project outside the umbrella of state universities. Because of this, its demise in the midst of a politico-financial dispute symbolizes a far more tragic moment than its face value: the end of the decades-long political Islam a la turca. Babacan and Davutoğlu are no ordinary AKP politicians but are among the architects of the Turkish model of moderate Islamism. Their performances in government shaped the economic and foreign policy practices of the Islamist rule; their ideas still do. These two names represent the two essential qualities – neo-Ottomanism and the Asian economic model – which coalesced over the peculiar trajectory of Turkish political Islam, aka ‘moderate’ Islam or the Turkish model. Since Davutoğlu’s launch of his new party is more imminent, the critical assessment of his tour de force has priority.

Neo-Ottomanism and “shift of axis”

Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of international relations, was appointed to the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2009. His doctrine of “strategic depth” postulates the reclamation of the imperial Ottoman geography (including the Balkans, the Arabic Peninsula and North Africa) along with a quasi-colonial expansion in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. These irredentist aspirations were formulated not in terms of military/colonial expansion but somehow as the expansion of Turkish cultural/political influence by deployment of “soft power” instruments.
European observers at the time monitored changes in Turkish foreign policy line under Davutoğlu with some concern, diagnosing a “shift of axis” in the AKP’s earlier moderate Islamist model. Turkish experience of Islamist governance was intended to present a model of transition of those opaque and authoritarian regimesof the Middle East by bridging the West with the Islamic world, in an equilibrium between liberal political values of European democracies and Sharia principles. Observers were concerned with Turkey’s over-inclination towards the Islamist end of this imaginary equilibrium under Davutoğlu’s neo-Ottomanist management.

Despite these concerns, Turkey did well in terms of the government’s targets in international relations.Increasing sales of Turkish TV soap operas around the Ottoman hinterland was taken as a significant indicator of the success of cultural expansionism, while the promotion of the Sunni/Salafi oppositions and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in secular Arab regimes was a sign of success in political influence. Davutoğlu also endeavoured to improve diplomatic relations and economic links with all the Muslim countries particularly with the Saudis and the Gulf states.

Shift to “hard power” and domestic authoritarization

The Arab Spring and the political turmoil that followed – particularly in Egypt –as well as the outbreak of civil wars in countries such as Libya and Syria ended the soft power honeymoon to pull Turkey further into the regional hegemony game. Allegations of a jihadist highway and supply lines to Salafi paramilitary groups followed, along with the overt collision with regional powers, the Saudi-Egypt bloc in particular, on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood. Maintenance of proxy armies and the military incursions into Syrian territory also took place in this hard power stage. On top of these evident consequences of Davutoğlu’s shift of axis, Turkey currently risks being subject to US sanctions over its rapprochement with the Russian military-industrial complex.

After serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for six years, Ahmet Davutoğlu was appointed by the president elect Erdoğan in 2014 to the post of prime minister, a position he held until 2016 when he was forced by the same person to resign. Although some of the above developments took place after his resignation, they arguably were not in breach of the strategic route that Davutoğlu drew as the chief of Turkey’s international relations.
Involvement in the regional power game has had serious implications in terms of the economy and domestic politics. Turkish prospects of integration with the EU has been replaced through time with a drift away from Europe’s judicial and political supervision, which is evident in the recent defiance of the ECHR rulings on the immediate release of political detainees, including Selahattin Demirtaş, Ahmet Altan and Osman Kavala. Instead of the AKP’s initial democratization program, the Turkish political climate has increasingly moved towards an authoritarian structure, no longer governed by the lawmakers in the parliament but by one man’s rule from the palace. Earlier hopes of democratic improvement in civil rights and liberties have been shelved in the process along with hopes of domestic peace with the Kurdish movement. The economic impact of the increase in defence spending necessitated by the recourse to hard power in the competition with regional powers and the millions of Syrian refugees can also be seen as the consequences of this course.

The appeal to “Real AKP” and its limits

Davutoğlu aims to turn a new page in his political career with the launch of a new party, which, his spokepersons declare, is grounded on a revival of the “real AKP,” promising a resurrection of the original equilibrium sought to be achieved through the ‘Turkish model’ of moderate Islam. This appeal is expected to inflict damage on the AKP’s organizational structure and a haemorrhage in the electoral base. In response, we will probably see in near future the government front propagating that Davutoğlu is responsible for the bankrupted foreign policy line on Syria and in most of the rest of the Middle East. The liberal opposition on the other hand will emphasize his crucial role in putting a distance between Turkey and the EU and the shattered prospects of democratization, while the pro-Kurdish line implicates Davutoğlu in the human rights breaches that occurred during the violent intervention in the Kurdish provinces in the aftermath of the June 2015 elections, and for his alleged toleration as the Prime Minister of the escalation of jihadist terrorism, which claimed hundreds of civilian lives.

Every participant in such a debate on Davutoğlu’s reputation in power has certainly a valid point. However, the question may lie deeper than his personal record, in the sustainability or not of an Islamist political project in Turkey. It is more likely that what has gone bankrupt along with Davutoğlu’s Syria policies is the whole “shift of axis” with all its consequences domestic and international alike. Moreover, the overview of Davutoğlu’s performance in power and his current challenge also opens up an assessment of the Islamists’ performance in power as a whole: that is, a query into the AKP experience, along with the feasibility of the original Turkish “moderate” Islamist model. After all, Davutoğlu’s appeal to return to the real AKP may not be a realistic prospect for the Turkish electorate after experiencing its gradual corruption over the past two decades.