Davutoglu is a heavyweight in conservative circles, and his challenge to Erdogan is significant in tipping the balance further in favor of the opposition forces calling for an end to Turkey’s authoritarian nightmare. “Repressive and illegal measures are closing down the capacity of the Turkish mind,” he said in a hard-hitting speech calling for a return to rule of law, the end of repression and a restoration of parliamentary checks and balances. “Those that have no sense of justice have nothing to say for our nation’s future.”
During the heydays of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Davutoglu served as an influential foreign policy adviser, foreign minister and eventually prime minister. The falling out with Erdogan came in 2016. As an academic, Davutoglu was an advocate of resurgent Turkish power and coined the policy “zero problems with neighbors.” He helped usher in a period of domestic reforms, as well as advances toward European Union membership and friendly regional relations during the AKP’s first decade in power, 2002 to 2012.
Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia criticizes Davutoglu for having stayed by Erdogan’s side for too long. But they miss the point. This is not solely a country of urban liberals — the key demographic for political change is Sunni conservatives, many of whom would never consider voting for the secularist main opposition party (CHP) or the Kurdish party (HDP). Davutoglu’s message will no doubt resonate in the Anatolian heartland.
That alone changes the election math in Turkey. Over the past few years, Erdogan’s AKP could punch just above the 51 percent threshold to win elections in a coalition with far-right parties. Today it is faring around 30 percent, and even with the support of its ultra-nationalist coalition partner (MHP), AKP seems to be several points below the 51 percent mark. Last summer, the AKP lost nearly all of Turkey’s major cities in municipal elections. With Davutoglu’s “Future Party,” and another soon-to-formed breakaway party led by former finance minister Ali Babacan, it is hard to imagine Erdogan as a lifetime president.
There are historical precedents. In 1908, a wide coalition led by the Young Turks overthrew the 32-year-old reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, a man Erdogan identifies with. In 1950, the Democratic Party won by a landslide as a reaction to the repressive regime of Ismet Inonu. Voters penalized the hanging of Turkey’s prime minister Adnan Menderes after a military coup by electing the Justice Party in 1965 elections. The list goes on. Turks can tolerate a heavy-handed state power during hard times, but they have reacted when authoritarians overreach. This ebb and flow of repression and pushback is a century-old story — and Turkey will self-adjust again.
But it’s not clear when the next democratic correction might happen. Elections are formally scheduled for 2023, but most politicians predict it will not take that long.
Next month, Babacan, who ran Turkey’s economy during its boom years, will unroll his own and possibly more liberal-leaning political platform. In conversations with leading members of both Babacan’s and Davutoglu’s parties over the past few months, I noticed their concerns about the country were almost identical: consolidation of too much power in Erdogan’s hands under the new presidential system, the erosion of democratic institutions, the sad state of the judiciary and poor management of the economy. One former Erdogan ally told me, “I could just sit back and write books or give speeches, making money. But the country is sinking before our eyes every day. We could not wait any longer.”
Still, there are external factors that could extend the shelf life of the current regime. An overseas military adventure would be one. How Washington handles Turkey matters a lot. President Trump’s reelection in 2020 would extend the strategic bromance, making it easier for Erdogan to manage the Turkish economy and domestic tensions. The U.S. Congress imposing sanctions on Turkey, as it is prepared to do, would also rally nationalists around the Turkish president.
But the impact of these would be temporary. Many Turks want to reclaim their democracy, and their numbers are growing. AKP has been in power for much of the past 17 years and has lost its touch. Sooner or later, someone else will come along.