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Founder’s Syndrome in AKParty

Photo by PIAZZA del POPOLO

Photo by PIAZZA del POPOLO

ANKARA—Ahmet Davutoğlu’s decision to resign from his positions as the Prime Minister of Turkey and the Chairman of the AK Party will only accelerate the existing trends in Turkish politics. Davutoğlu’s departure came quicker than anyone had anticipated and is not a result of an election failure, voter discontent, or strong opposition within the party. It is a case of “Founder’s Syndrome” in the AKParty and Recep Erdoğan’s quest for a presidential system.

It is retrospectively possible to trace the early signals of the so-called Founder’s Syndrome to the very early days of the AKParty. Initially there were four founding fathers: Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül, Bülent Arınç, and Abdüllatif Şener. In time Erdoğan gained disproportionate power over the party while the other three lost their influence one by one.

When Erdoğan became Turkey’s first popularly elected president in August 2014, winning 52% of the votes in the first round, he was required by Article 101 of the Constitution to give up his party membership. Erdoğan gave the nod to Davutoğlu, who was then elected Chairman of the AKParty in a Party Assembly. Whatever Erdoğan and Davutoğlu were expecting, there was tension from the beginning. Davutoğlu was willing to cede most of his power to Erdoğan, but he appeared to think that he could practice at least some limited leadership and build a powerbase of his own in time. Erdoğan, in contrast, did not expect to share any power with anyone, and expected Davutoğlu to be an implementer of his decisions.

The expectations gap between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu caused frictions over the party list during the two parliamentary elections held in June and November 2015 and over the Central Committee list during the General Assembly in September 2015. Throughout Davutoğlu’s time in office there were struggles over appointments of senior bureaucrats, as well as policy decisions. The competition and lack of harmony between their cadres also contributed to the buildup of tension. As Founder’s syndrome suggests, Erdoğan’s charisma has led the party to success, but is now constraining it.

Another factor in the fall-out between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu was Erdoğan’s quest for a presidential system. Davutoğlu endorsed Erdoğan’s plans, but never gave it the priority Erdoğan would expect from him. He said on more than one occasion that while the AKParty aims to transform Turkey to a presidential system, it is not the main priority at the moment. Moreover, his performance was making the role of the Prime Minister too relevant for a country that was about to adopt a presidential system, not only domestically, but also internationally. Davuoğlu had increased his profile in Europe through the refugee agreement, while Erdoğan's image was tarnished because of his reaction to criticism at home and abroad. In fact, Davutoğlu would be making a high profile visit to Washington if the current crisis had not erupted. While Davutoğlu was only doing his job as defined by the constitution and Turkey’s political traditions, Erdoğan saw this detrimental to his goal of a presidential system.

Erdoğan is now expected to ‘’appoint’’ a low profile prime minister who will operate more like a vice-president than a prime minister and defer to Erdoğan on all important decisions. Indeed Turkey already has a de-facto presidential system of governance, or presidential plus, with Erdoğan controlling the executive and legislative branches absolutely and the judiciary to a large extent. However, he will not be satisfied until Turkey switches to a presidential system constitutionally. The 317 seats the AKParty has in the parliament is far short of the 367 seats required to change the constitution, and even short of the 330 seats required to initiate a referendum. While the AKParty can attract the support of some opposition deputies, defects from the AKParty ranks can also be expected in a closed vote, particularly after the fallout between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. This is why many people expect Erdoğan to take the country to yet another early election at a point when he sees one or both of the two small parties in the parliament, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) or the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) below the 10% threshold.

These developments have strong implications for Turkey’s allies. Turkey is preparing for a period of both political certainty and uncertainty. On a positive note, Turkey’s allies will have no doubts about whom to talk to when they need to cooperate with Turkey in the short run. However, Turkey will also be a costly and unpredictable partner due to its de facto system of government that is not in compliance with its constitution, politicized judiciary, causing problems with the rule of law and pressures on media freedom.