Turkey needs a better political challenger – Ahmet Davutoglu just doesn't cut it

The former prime minister has little heft or popularity to take on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his one-time colleague
Former Turkish prime minister and "Future Party" chairman Ahmet Davutoglu (L) gives a press conference after his party's meeting in Ankara on December 19, 2019. Davutoglu, who served as prime minister between 2014 to 2016 and chairman of Erdogan's ruling party, formally presented the Future Party ("Gelecek Partisi" in Turkish) at a ceremony in Ankara. / AFP / Adem ALTAN

Last week, Turkey's former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the formation of a new political party called Gelecek – or Future. Mr Davutoglu is hoping to rival President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Mr Davutoglu also once helmed.

Those hoping that his political gambit is a positive development are mistaken. Mr Davutoglu’s democratic credentials are lacking and he has had few, if any, political successes of which to boast. He does not have a popular following either. His style is monotone and he lacks charisma. His support is limited to a small circle of intellectuals within the AKP’s ranks.

Mr Davutoglu missed his opportunity to challenge Mr Erdogan back in 2016 when the latter overstepped constitutional boundaries. At the time, the position of president was supposed to be largely ceremonial but Mr Erdogan still managed to push Mr Davutoglu, who was then prime minister, out of office. Instead of challenging Mr Erdogan, he stepped down and stayed largely silent as the country experienced an attempted military coup, mass purges within the public sector and security services, three military interventions in Syria and constitutional amendments that transformed the country into a presidential autocracy.

Before entering politics, Mr Davutoglu was a university professor. His output was limited to several articles published in obscure third-tier journals and an impenetrable book titled Strategic Depth, a hodgepodge of geopolitics, international relations, nationalism and nostalgia for Turkey's Ottoman past. Still, it was well-timed. The AKP was emerging as a political force. Its leaders had earned their stripes in political Islam and they saw Mr Davutoglu's international outlook as a potentially popular strategic vision that countered the country's traditional western orientation.

He soon became Mr Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser before being made foreign minister in 2009 and prime minister in 2014, a position he held until 2016.

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2018 file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu look toward the party members at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey. Davutoglu, a former Turkish prime minister, who had served as foreign minister between 2009 and 2014 and later as prime minister until 2016, has established a new political party on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in a move that could dent support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

While in office, Mr Davutoglu was the architect of Turkey's "zero problems" strategy. This was a delusional approach to foreign relations as it confused outcomes with means. Everyone wants to have zero problems but the question of how to achieve this lofty goal drew a blank.

Under his watch, Turkey was caught off-guard by the 2011 Arab uprisings. Instead of being cautious, he rushed to take sides in a desperate bid to gain regional influence. Ankara supported the Muslim Brotherhood, whether it be Mohammad Morsi, the former president of Egypt, or Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, Mr Davutoglu allowed Turkey to be dragged into the Syrian civil war and it was under his watch that thousands of foreign fighters entered Syria through Turkey to join ISIS – even as millions of Syrian refugees fled to Turkey. He did not oppose Iran’s nuclear programme and turned a blind eye to the repression of that country's Green Movement in 2009. Turkey was soon despised across the region. Even Turkey’s traditional allies in Europe and the US became disillusioned. Relations with Moscow, meanwhile, reached a low ebb with the downing of a Russian jet along the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015.

Mr Davutoglu’s time in office was also marked by his acquiescence to the country’s descent to autocracy. He was part of Mr Erdogan’s government that brutally suppressed the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and destroyed the free press by imprisoning journalists and closing critical outlets. The parliamentary immunity of politicians from the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was stripped under his watch, a policy that led to politically-motivated arrests and imprisonments of scores of deputies. Mr Davutoglu was also happy to campaign during the June 2015 parliamentary elections and its November re-run while his party used state resources and overwhelming media support to win elections that although were free, were far from fair.

His new party has no chance of passing the threshold of 10 per cent of the popular vote in order for it to enter parliament. He would need to join an alliance with another party that might make his own party less appealing to those disaffected with Mr Erdogan and the AKP.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29:  H.E. Ali Babacan, Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey speaks during the Opening Ceremony & Leaders Panel at the 9th World Islamic Economic Forum at ExCel on October 29, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images for 9th World Islamic Economic Forum)

The real challenge to the AKP will come early next year when Ali Babacan – who held the post of economy minister while Turkey's performance was strong – announces his new party. Mr Babacan has the support of Abdullah Gul, the popular former president and AKP co-founder. However, it should not be forgotten that both remained silent while Turkey's checks and balances were being eroded and power was increasingly centralised.

Even if Mr Babacan, Mr Gul and Mr Davutoglu were to have some kind of democratic epiphany, they would still face an uphill battle. They would need to get a significant number of AKP deputies to jump ship ahead of elections in four years. Then they would need to work with other opposition parties in order to muster the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to overturn the constitutional changes of 2017 that gave Mr Erdogan his executive presidency. The best they can hope for is a three-fifths majority, which would bring any proposed changes to the constitution back to the voting public through a referendum. Even if successful, this would only return Turkey to the imperfect 2017 status quo ante, which was deficient in matters pertaining to the freedoms of speech and assembly, minority rights, the independence of the judiciary and civil-military relations.

Those hoping that Mr Davutoglu’s Future Party will challenge the AKP should look elsewhere. His chances are low, his record of public service is chequered and he has displayed a consistent lack of acumen in foreign affairs. Turkey needs a better political challenger. It deserves no less.

Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London