Demonstrators carry a huge Turkish flag during a demonstration including members of the Turkish ultra-nationalist organization called the Grey Wolves in Duesseldorf, western Germany, May 8, 2016.
Demonstrators carry a huge Turkish flag during a demonstration including members of the Turkish ultra-nationalist organization called the Grey Wolves in Duesseldorf, western Germany, May 8, 2016.
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s May 5 resignation at the request of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a further consolidation of power in the hands of a man who is already the most powerful politician in Turkey since the country became a multiparty democracy in 1950.

Erdogan has ruled since 2003, first as prime minister and head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and then as president, a constitutionally non-partisan office in Turkey’s parliamentary system. When Erdogan became president in 2014, Davutoglu took over as AKP chair and became the country’s new prime minister. Davutoglu had risen in politics as Erdogan’s chief adviser, finally becoming Erdogan’s foreign minister in 2009. The two men were colleagues in conceiving and executing Turkey’s foreign policy pivot to the Middle East. Accordingly, when Erdogan offered Davutoglu the prime minister position that was sure to be somewhat neutered, Davutoglu happily obliged.

To the extent that Davutoglu was a compliant partner of Erdogan, for instance, working closely with him on Syria, where the two have tried for years to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime, Davutoglu never completely satisfied Erdogan. This is because Davutoglu is a household name both in Turkey and overseas, which irked Erdogan, who seeks to consolidate and personalize political power. Erdogan was reportedly upset, for instance, when Davutoglu wanted to visit Washington to meet with President Barack Obama only weeks after the Turkish president himself had visited Washington in March 2016 to do the same.

Having now fallen from grace, Davutoglu is likely to become a quiet observer of Turkish politics, following the path of previous cast-off AKP officials, including former President Abdullah Gul, who have chosen not to confront Erdogan after he ejected them from the AKP leadership. For his part, Erdogan is set to pick a new, more compliant politician as AKP chair at the party’s May 22 convention. This person will then take office as the country’s new prime minister, and after some months, few will even recall the name of the new leader, much like in Jordan or Morocco, where all-powerful kings overshadow little-known prime ministers.

The problem for Turkey’s erstwhile king is his country’s constitution, the mainstay of Turkish politics since the 1908 Constitutional Revolution that ended the autocratic rule of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. At that time, the Young Turks rose up against the sultan and forced him to recognize the constitution that Abdulhamid II had suspended in 1878. After this point, the Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy. When the empire collapsed at the end of World War I, modern Turkey evolved into a constitutional republic in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, finally becoming a democracy in 1950. Contentious as Turkey’s politics sometimes are, all of the country’s power centers have generally supported constitutional politics since. Even when the military intervened, it claimed to do so to protect the constitution and rule of law.

But Erdogan seems unconcerned with that history. In the coming days, following the AKP convention and the appointment of a new prime minister, he is likely to orchestrate a referendum to alter the Turkish constitution to his liking to introduce an executive-style and omnipotent presidency. Most recently, on January 6, Erdogan called for switching to the presidential system, saying this is system is “rooted in the country’s history.”

In this pursuit, he is likely to win support thanks to his recent harsher stance on the Kurdish issue. Earlier in his rule, Erdogan was a liberal on the Kurdish issue, for instance, opening up a publicly funded, 24-hour Kurdish language news network to address Kurdish cultural demands. Erdogan was also forgiving toward the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), initiating peace talks with the group, which both Washington and Ankara listed as a terrorist organization in 2012. Recently, however Erdogan has become a hawk on the Kurdish issue to boost his popularity. And to this end, the PKK will serve as his unwitting accomplice.

In July 2015, the PKK ended a two-year ceasefire with the Turkish government, resuming a violent campaign of terror attacks. At that time, the PKK hoped to seize control of towns in the country’s southeast in a repeat of what its Syrian franchise, Party for Democratic Unity (PYD), had pulled off in northern Syria. The PYD declared autonomy in these regions in 2013 and has held fast ever since.

However, thus far, the PKK’s gambit has failed miserably and has taken a tremendous toll on the civilian Kurdish population in the country’s southeast. To root out PKK military infrastructure in urban centers, security forces have declared weeklong curfews in towns in southeastern Turkey, suspending civil liberties. The PKK has been unable to defeat the powerful Turkish military, and fighting between the group and security forces has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the group’s return to violence has stunted the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP), the sole peaceful voice for Kurdish rights in Turkey.

In 2015, the HDP was on the cusp of becoming a player in national politics when it increased its support from 6.5 percent in the 2011 election to 13 percent last June. The party more than doubled its electoral tally by running liberal candidates in large cities in western Turkey, where it attracted Turkish voters, and conservative candidates in the southeast, where it pulled in religious Kurdish voters. Violence has scared liberal Turkish and conservative Kurdish voters away from the party. A recent poll shows support for the HDP may have dropped to as low as seven percent. At least some of the conservative Kurdish voters seem to be abandoning the HDP for the AKP: the rise of the PKK is benefitting Erdogan.

Perhaps even more damaging to Kurdish interests in the long term is that the renewed fighting has helped Erdogan bolster his image as a strong leader. Before the recent bloodshed, Erdogan had maxed out his electoral support running as a conservative Islamist president capable of delivering economic prosperity and good governance. In two elections, in 2011 and 2015, Erdogan ran on this platform and won about 49.5 percent of the vote. The Turkish leader surpassed the 50 percent threshold in national elections only once and only by a little: in the 2014 presidential poll, he received 51.8 percent of the vote. Erdogan does not want to take a chance in any referendum and is therefore looking to boost his popularity well beyond 50 percent.

High popularity would also work to Erdogan's advantage should he decide to skip the referendum and call instead  for early elections to increase the AKP's majority in the Turkish legislature. A strong turnout in the polls would endow the AKP with a supermajority in the parliament, in which case Erdogan could make changes to the country's constitution without having to go to a referendum.

With his recent embrace of anti-Kurdish Turkish nationalism, Erdogan hopes to broaden his base and peel off voters from the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose conservative-extreme nationalist platform nearly matches the AKP’s Islamist-nationalist platform. The MHP received 12 percent of the vote in the November 2015 elections. But a recent poll shows that its support has dropped to nine percent. Meanwhile, the AKP’s support has risen from 49.5 to 56 percent.

Of course, not everyone in Turkey will be happy to see Erdogan’s fortunes lifted. He has won successive elections by demonizing and politically brutalizing demographics that will never vote for him. The list includes secularists, leftists, social democrats, liberals, Alevis, and nationalist Kurds. When combined, these groups make up no more than 40 percent of the Turkish electorate, but there are still plenty of enemies waiting for him to fall from power, and in any case, Erdogan knows that corruption charges brought against him and members of his family in 2013 have left him with no graceful way to exit the scene. When prosecutors tried to press charges against Erdogan and his family, Erdogan quickly replaced them: charges were subsequently thrown out.

Erdogan thus knows that he needs to continue winning elections and consolidating power, lest he expose himself and his family members to prosecution. He will continue to jail journalists, ban peaceful opposition rallies, and harass dissidents. He knows that cracking down violently on those who are not likely to vote in favor of his referendum will only help his rule.

Erdogan’s pursuit of power is taking Turkey down a dangerous path. He is de facto head of government and head of the ruling party in addition to being head of state (his official title).The personalization of power and the hollowing out of political and civil institutions will render the country extremely brittle. When Erdogan does leave office—and one day he will—there will be few institutions left standing to keep it together. Turkey has been a democracy for a long time now—long enough that it should be safe. But Erdogan’s pursuit of complete power demonstrates that populist leaders can corrupt such systems too.

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  • SONER CAGAPTAY is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
  • More By Soner Cagaptay