Turkey’s current course of political affairs offer little hope for a plausible change in the offing. Yet, for all the distressing picture, some politicians embrace the challenge to confront President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tightening grip on the country by promising a return to normalcy — democratic politics. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is one of those politicians.
In a Zoom webinar with the D.C.-based Middle East Institute (MEI) last week, Davutoglu shared his vision of new Turkey, his party program, and provided a wide-ranging commentary on the most divisive socio-political issues of the day. The professor of political science, despite all his professed wisdom, has failed to offer reassurance about how to bridge up the gap between his lofty words and deeds. The chasm between abstract theoretical talk and the actual practice is quite evident given his controversial record on implementing some of his doctrines into concrete policy successes during his tenure as prime minister (2014–2016). (His service as foreign minister was much better, though it was also tainted by his controversial role in Turkey’s embroilment in the Syrian conflict.)
Davutoglu, who is most known for his Strategic Depth doctrine that guided the Turkish foreign policy for more than a decade, struggled to defend his record when grilled by the moderator Gonul Tol about the human rights abuses and Turkey’s drift away from democracy during his premiership. The former prime minister outright rejected any responsibility and even dismissed some factual data about the initial signs of the breakdown of academic freedom and free speech during his time.
He insisted that there was not a single academic investigated during his time. But the Supreme Council of Higher Education (YOK) launched a probe against more than 1,000 academics for signing a petition that called for the cessation of urban operations by the security forces against outlawed militants in southeastern Turkey to avoid civilian casualties in early 2016.
Davutoglu clung to his claim that there was no shutdown of any institution during his time. But there were a number of media outlets were confiscated by authorities when he served as premier. During his tenure, the initial phases of the purge began in the police department, judiciary, and other sectors of the public service. He helped Erdogan stifle a corruption probe against former cabinet ministers in late 2013 and throughout 2014. His government simply ditched the case by blocking a parliamentary investigation. The Davutoglu government waged bloody urban warfare against the PKK in several cities that caused massive displacement and human cost. (To be fair, it must be noted that President Erdogan’s role was much more decisive in the renewal of 2015 fighting.)
The list of Davutoglu’s failures is no trivial. To survive in his post, he mostly countenanced Erdogan’s overreach and subversion of constitutional propriety in every layer of governance. But none of his appeasements protected his post when the president unceremoniously dumped him in a palace coup in May 2016.
The professor, when announced his resignation against his will, vowed to remain loyal to Erdogan until his last breath. He pledged not to have a separate political course. As of today, he seems to have breached most of his public pledges of fidelity to Erdogan. He now deploys all available vocabulary to disparage, discredit and attack his former patron. Yet, this does little to convince a skeptical audience except for his core supporters.
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About the government’s Hagia Sophia decision, he offered his full-throated support for the designation of the museum as a mosque with a minor caveat. He did not criticize the move at its core but offered his reservation about how it was implemented. The former prime minister called the world reaction as hypocritical, reminding the lack of similar condemnation when the Spaniards converted Cordoba mosque to a cathedral in the 1200s in the medieval era.
Since his split with Erdogan, the professor has found himself in the crosshairs of the government. The president’s wrath is embodied by an overnight presidential decree that last month shuttered a university — Istanbul Sehir University — associated with Davutoglu. In the MEI webinar, the honorary board member of the university offered a heartfelt elegy, bemoaning the loss of a promising college.
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“It was an inclusive institution where socialists, leftists, Islamists and other academics gathered under one umbrella,” he moaned. The way how the university fell victim to political revenge, he reckoned, only mortified his anguish and dashed his remaining hopes about academic freedom in Turkey.
Turkey’s current political system, the professor contended, has been irrevocably corrupted by the unprincipled partisan politics that found its expression in alliances between parliamentary parties. As to a question of whether his party would seek an electoral alliance, he simply rebuffed the idea as essentially corrupting.
Alliances, the professor asserted with conviction, distort the character of political parties in this presidential system. “Look at the AK Party. It looks like more MHP today.”
Davutoglu and Turkey Purge
There is a far deeper issue that belittles the former prime minister’s claim of moral high ground about his past record and current deeds. The professor, who occasionally rose to the occasion for raising the wide-ranging woes that have afflicted hundreds of thousands of lives shattered by the terror of post-coup purge, has in essence no different view or policy discourse than the government’s when it comes to the main target group of the repression. He has no qualm over embracing the default position of the government by free-floating of the “FETO” narrative. (The faith-based Gulen movement has been designated as an outlawed terror outfit by Turkish authorities.)
This blanket deployment of the term without offering a caveat or contextual differentiation only deprives the professor of any moral legitimacy about his lofty claim of restoring justice back to Turkey once he becomes a ruler again. The “FETO,” measured by how it was deployed by the government, only serves to make anyone a prisoner of a concept whose semantic and legal boundaries are as vague and far-reaching as the ever-shifting whims of the government. By parroting the government’s talking point, Davutoglu justifies, endorses and further enables a discourse (as well as a practice) that serves as the legal and political ground to discredit, vilify, terrorize, and even litigate anyone who dares to cross lines drawn by the government about a matter, or any matter, that entails vital importance in the domestic realm.
And Davutoglu naively errs in thinking that the adoption of that rhetoric would secure him from potential prosecution by endearing him to the authorities or demarcate the political borders where he stands. Absurd though it may seem, the “FETO” charge was ridiculously deployed against anyone without discrimination, even against Gulen’s universal foes who built their entire careers against the U.S.-based clerk’s organization and thoughts. In this political context of sanctified absurdity, the realm of the reasoned debate has never been rendered that narrow. This is also true for Davutoglu.
For someone who is fixated with inventing an ingenuine body of concepts to identify world problems as well as social affairs of his country, the blind admission of a political discourse tailored to conceal the regime’s fascist character is no small blunder. It is this indiscriminate “FETO” charge pointed against any government discontent that throttles the country’s democracy, and the very idea of the politics. The professor, if he ever intends to stand up to the task of saving the country, should reject this imposition not just for the sake of a reasonable argument about any matter of national importance, but also for the sake of politics itself.
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Without ifs and buts, espousing political awareness for the predicament of KHK people (purge victims) is a must for any aspiring politician to bounce the country back from a headlong plunge into a costly moral abyss. The social cost of the purge terror has already left a moral stain on the public conscience. Before wasting further time on grand narratives and macro intellectual terms such as civilization, weltanschauung, and paradigms, what Davutoglu should do is crystal clear: to wage a battle for the lost building blocks of Turkey’s social fabric and legal setting — humanism, compassion, and justice, not just for himself but for every citizen wronged by authorities over the course of recent years.