A guide to the cast of characters looking to take down Erdogan

The President's own ex-PM is among those wanting to undo his legacy

Throughout his decades-long political career, former US vice president Joe Biden was never really seen as presidential material. Now he is set to occupy the highest office in the land.

Similarly, in Turkey another former number two often described as bookish and mousy is challenging the country’s leader, hoping to take a Biden-like path to the top.

“The biggest danger facing Europe and the world today is not the coronavirus, but the virus of authoritarian culture spread by illiterate and populist leaders,” Ahmet Davutoglu said last week, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the novel coronavirus that has killed an estimated 1.25 million people worldwide.

Foreign minister under Mr Erdogan from 2009 to 2014 and prime minister from 2014 to 2016, Mr Davutoglu chose a good time to speak out. A poll by Avrasya, a Turkish pollster, released the same day he made the above comments showed support for Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has never lost a national vote in its 19-year history, at an all-time low.

Some 32 per cent of those polled would vote AKP, while just over 28 per cent said they would vote for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). More troubling for Mr Erdogan, the survey found support for the AKP’s alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to be just 0.5 per cent above that of the CHP’s alliance with the nationalist Good Party, at 32.7 to 32.2 per cent, respectively.

ISTANBUL - MARCH 30: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's face adorns posters throughout Istanbul, even though the election is regional. This poster, seen through a car windshield on a rainy day, hangs above a highway. March 30, 2014.        (Tanya Talaga/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In June 2018 the AKP-MHP alliance won a convenient 53 per cent of the vote, gaining a 44-seat majority in parliament. Since then, the depreciation of the lira, high unemployment and inflation and recurring economic crises, topped off by the pandemic, have eroded the strength of the ruling party.

Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu are thought to have fallen out in 2016 over Turkey’s new presidential system, leading to the latter’s resignation. Rumours swirled even then about the former prime minister leaving the ruling party to launch his own. In a lengthy Facebook post in April 2019, days after the AKP performed poorly in local elections, Davutoglu lambasted Erdogan and the party for corruption, nepotism and polarising rhetoric. Eight months later, he launched the Future Party, which focused on equal rights, religious freedom and free-market economics.

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for November 2023 but Mr Davutoglu has already begun laying the foundations of his electoral strategy while calling for an early vote. He met CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu last month, signalling a potential alliance that would dovetail well with the main opposition’s new “governing with friends” slogan.

Mr Davutoglu is undoubtedly aware that he needs a partnership in order to wield any real political influence, as he and his party rank far down the totem pole of challengers to Mr Erdogan and AKP dominance. First on the list would be the CHP’s rising star, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. He beat the AKP twice last year, has frequently challenged Mr Erdogan publicly and courts international support through an English-language Twitter account and numerous visits to Western capitals, including London last year. Next up would be the Mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas – another popular CHP figure.

Most observers would agree that the third and fourth leading challengers are Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and the CHP’s Muharram Ince. Both have run for the presidency against Mr Erdogan in the past and generated momentum.

Mr Davutoglu would not even rank as the most popular former AKP leader who now heads an opposition party. That distinction would go to former economic czar Ali Babacan, an AKP co-founder who launched the aptly named Deva (Remedy) Party in March, calling for greater rights, stronger democracy and gender equality. Both new parties poll at around four or five per cent, and Mr Davutoglu is seen as possibly only the sixth leading challenger to Mr Erdogan in part because many voters blame him for Turkey’s precarious position in the world today.

Mr Babacan is often credited for presiding over considerable economic growth. Mr Davutoglu, on the other hand, is known internationally for championing a less confrontational foreign policy – the "zero problems with neighbours" approach that influenced the first dozen years of AKP rule. But that is only part of what he recommended in his landmark 2001 book, Strategic Depth. The second element was to leverage what the AKP believes to be "Turkish Islam" as a crucial soft power tool, a move Ankara has embraced fully in recent years, but has raised concerns about its links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr Davutoglu argued that only by doing this would Turkey become a global power in the post-Cold War context, according to Ahmet Erdi Ozturk, a lecturer at London Metropolitan University, who wrote a 2018 journal article about the transformation of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet. Ozturk argued that Mr Davutoglu's new direction placed Islamist ideology at the centre of Turkey's foreign policy, hugely empowering Diyanet.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wearing a mask to help protect against the spread of coronavirus, addresses his ruling Justice and Development Party members at a soccer stadium, in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)
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Davutoglu helped place Islamist ideology at the centre of Turkey's foreign policy

Diyanet's budget and staff have indeed expanded vastly, with Turkey distributing Qurans and building mosques in dozens of countries around the world. Ankara has backed Islamists in Syria, Libya, the Gaza Strip and Qatar. It is also one of the leading supporters of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups in Europe, according to a recent report by the French Senate. A fellow columnist at The National last week urged Europe to crack down on such support.

Ankara today is also more expansionist and independent-minded. In recent months, Turkey has faced possible sanctions from the US and EU for its purchase of Russia's S-400 missile system and over its maritime assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean. As I explained in a previous column, Turkish aggressiveness at sea and across the region is part of a post-Davutoglu foreign policy known as Mavi Vatan, or "Blue Homeland".

"There is a lot of continuity from Strategic Depth to Mavi Vatan," Ryan Gingeras, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Ataturk, told me this year. "Among them is this romanticisation of Ottoman history and that Turkey has to recapture its prowess as a maritime power."

In September, Mr Davutoglu appeared to contradict his previous policy position, warning that Turkey’s power projection in the eastern Mediterranean risked military conflict. Yet if the former prime minister is ever going to win the broad and sustained support he needs to mimic Mr Biden’s path to power, he will have to shoulder some of the blame for Turkey and its current leader posing such grave danger to the world.

David Lepeska is a veteran journalist who has been covering Turkey for the past decade

David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National