Erdogan’s Attacks on His Old Ally Could Backfire

The Turkish president is shutting down a university to punish former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for leaving the AKP and starting a new party, but he risks alienating precisely the voters he claims to champion.

Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announces he will launch a new political movement at a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 13. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

ISTANBUL—Parting ways with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not been easy for former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Since being forced to resign his post in 2016, Davutoglu has occasionally waded into the public sphere to offer careful criticism of Erdogan’s one-man rule that is threatening Turkey’s democracy. But over the last few months, Davutoglu has opposed Erdogan more forcefully, culminating in his public plans to form a new opposition party—an announcement that could mean a death blow to his most cherished legacy: a university in Istanbul.

This month, an Istanbul court sided with creditors at Halkbank in a dispute that spells the end for Istanbul Sehir University, founded by Davutoglu in 2008 to cater to a growing conservative intelligentsia. Halkbank loaned the university around 400 million Turkish lira ($70 million) based on collateral in the form of a massive campus in eastern Istanbul that is worth around three times that.

Ownership of part of the land for the campus has been disputed for years now, but this October, Halkbank suddenly announced it was freezing the university’s accounts because the dispute meant the land was worthless as collateral. The timing of the announcement, which coincides with Davutoglu’s split from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has led many to speculate the state-owned Halkbank is doing Erdogan’s bidding.

More than 7,000 students attend Sehir, a quarter of them on scholarships, said Kahraman Sakul, the chair of the history department. Sehir has managed to attract foreign academics as well; 15 percent of the students, and 10 percent of the staff are from outside Turkey. Halkbank has frozen the university’s funds, meaning no one is being paid, and the campus’ utility bills are piling up. “Electricity will go off, there will be no natural gas, no heating, no internet,” he said. “We still have time, but everyone is concerned about the utilities. If you do not pay the bills you have about two months before they cut them off.”

The university itself was the product of the Foundation for Sciences and Arts, a nonprofit founded by Davutoglu in the 1980s as a space to build a conservative academic class. Thousands of people have attended the foundation’s seminars over the years—free courses on everything including modern cinema and contemporary Turkish politics—most crucially when a ban on headscarves in public universities kept thousands of religious women out of academia.

Sehir University’s political mix—which includes professors and students who vote for Erdogan—has spared it from the ire of the government, especially since the failed 2016 coup attempt, which forced the closure of similar conservative-leaning universities. Fifteen universities, including one in Istanbul that was among the top-rated institutions in the country, were closed in 2016, because they were founded by organizations tied to Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the coup attempt.

“If you ask Ahmet Davutoglu for three things that are most important for him, after his family and his country, he will tell you Sehir University,” said Osman Sert, the research director at the Ankara Institute, who served as an advisor to Davutoglu during his tenure as foreign minister and later prime minister. Davutoglu has tried to keep the university out of his political fallout with Erdogan over the years—he did not attend this year’s graduation ceremony, for instance—but that distance has not been enough. The financial crisis faced by Sehir, as a result, is seen by Davutoglu as a personal political attack as he prepares to launch his opposition party. Former friends who came from the same socio-ideological background—who had “walked the same path” as him, as Davutoglu said in a Nov. 4 statement—were now trying to thwart him as he split from the AKP.

Davutoglu’s political ambitions, and the fallout for institutions like Sehir, threaten to widen a cleavage within the ruling AKP and among Turkey’s conservative voters. According to official figures, the AKP has lost 10 percent of its membership, nearly 1 million voters, in the last year. Along with Davutoglu, former president and AKP co-founder Abdullah Gul has also quit, as has Ali Babacan, a former finance minister who is forming his own party, banking on his experience during good economic times to woo voters worried about the country’s current recession.

Davutoglu’s arguments with Erdogan went public this April, weeks after an election that saw the ruling AKP lose control of the country’s largest cities—Istanbul and Ankara. Davutoglu produced a 15-page manifesto blasting the AKP’s decision-making mechanisms, which he said “have either been rendered entirely dysfunctional or exist only to justify a single point of view.”

Targeting such issues as Erdogan’s alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and a new presidential system that took power away from other branches of government, the manifesto was a scathing critique of the party that Davutoglu had been a part of since 2002, when the political science and international relations lecturer was hired to advise Gul, then the newly formed party’s head. Davutoglu ended his critique by calling for the party to reform itself.

That never happened. Instead Davutoglu found himself among a small group of critics being belittled by Erdogan. “We’ve seen many people break away from us and form new parties,” Erdogan said dismissively when asked about the leaders his party was losing in July. “If I ask you about them now, you won’t even be able to remember their names,” he said. “Those who take part in this kind of treachery will pay a heavy price.”

Davutoglu found himself blacklisted from AKP-dominated media and even unwelcome on international outlets that faced pressure from Erdogan. On July 19, he gave an hourslong interview to three journalists working for the Russian-financed Sputnik outlet’s Turkish language service. Under pressure from the AKP, Sputnik refused to run the interview, so the journalists published it on YouTube. The next day, all three were fired by Sputnik.

That kind of petty punishment for Davutoglu has continued—little jibes that have added up to infuriate his supporters. When the country’s best-known constitutional law professor, former Foreign Minister Mumtaz Soysal, died this month, Davutoglu showed up to pay his respects. He is in all the pictures, standing next to Istanbul’s newly elected Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, of the opposition Republican People’s Party—but most major news outlets conspicuously left his name out of the long list of funeral attendees.

“Forget political discourses, this news is just for normal daily consumption, somebody just attending the funeral ceremony, and they are not even mentioning the name of the ex-prime minister,” said one source close to Davutoglu.

This September, the party’s central leadership decided to formally purge Davutoglu and six other members for their transgressions. Days later, Davutoglu announced he would be forming a new political party.

Davutoglu’s new movement rented out a four-story space in a sprawling shopping center in western Istanbul, only to have it sealed and shut down by the local AKP-controlled borough government over a technicality with its permit. (Although the opposition controls the city’s overall government, some boroughs are still AKP-led.) The headquarters will instead now be housed in an opposition-run district in Ankara.

Meanwhile, Davutoglu has been meeting opposition figures and others disgruntled with the AKP, steadily building up a list of recognizable names who sources close to him say will join his new party by the end of the year. The party will try to distance itself from what Davutoglu has called the AKP’s platform of “statist, security, status quo, and mere survival concerns.”

In recent elections, Erdogan has depicted campaigns as existential battles, warning supporters that if his party loses would mean the end of religious freedoms that have allowed a religiously conservative class to emerge in the public sphere over the last few decades. That discourse, though, is no longer a winning one, as shown by the embarrassing defeat of the AKP in mayoral elections this year. “Turkey is not the same as 20 years ago, its problems have totally changed now,” said one longtime advisor to Davutoglu. “The headscarf issue was an issue 20 years ago, as was the tutelage of the military, its pressure and control on the government and parliament … now it is issues like freedom of expression that are important.”

Over the last few months, Davutoglu has met with those who would be natural allies, such as Temel Karamollaoglu, the head of the conservative opposition Felicity Party, the latest incarnation of a party that first nurtured Erdogan in the 1990s. He has also met with political figures in the Kurdish-majority southeast, figures such as Altan Tan, a former lawmaker with the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP.

The outreach to the Kurdish vote comes amid a crackdown on the HDP that has drawn widespread criticism from Davutoglu and others. Dozens of HDP mayors elected with wide margins in March have been removed over unproven terrorism charges since August, a move that Davutoglu has said would undermine the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—an organization Turkey considers a terrorist group. “The most effective political fight against terrorism is not by eroding democratic representation but by entering the hearts of the nation and winning elections,” Davutoglu tweeted at the time.

The ruling AKP’s heavy-handed tactics against Kurdish politicians have been explained by supporters as being meant for the consumption of the right-wing MHP, without which Erdogan would lose his majority in parliament. Although Davutoglu has a checkered history on the Kurdish issue—military campaigns that laid waste to southeastern cities in 2015 and 2016 were conducted during his term as prime minister—his supporters say he will push to roll back the criminalization of Kurdish politics that Erdogan has overseen in recent years. That split from right-wing politics, as well as a focus on ending corruption, is peeling off AKP members slowly. At least a dozen AKP leaders, including current lawmakers, have quit the party in recent months.

“Davutoglu was someone who I already knew, we had worked together in parliament, he was not far from me,” said Mustafa Ozturk, an AKP parliament member from Bursa who quit the party and joined Davutoglu this month. “In its first era, the AKP was good for Turkey, for the people of Turkey, they were sensitive to the needs of the people, to development, the economy, they worked for expanding freedoms,” he said. “Today, the party’s problems are clear to people.” Corruption, the rolling back of freedom of expression and other rights, and, finally, the alliance with the MHP have harmed the AKP, Ozturk said. A core of up to 100 high-profile founders will launch the new party, which Ozturk expects will happen in December.

Turkey is not due for elections until 2023, but given the last few years of instability in the country, Ozturk and the other defectors could soon find themselves running a campaign against their former colleagues in the AKP. The MHP-AKP alliance won 344 of 600 parliament seats in 2018, but if enough government lawmakers quit, it could trigger new elections.

Polls show Davutoglu drawing anywhere from 5 to 12 percent of votes with his new party, but most estimates put it well below the 10 percent threshold needed for a political party to enter parliament on its own under Turkish electoral rules. Under the new presidential system adopted last year, though, Davutoglu could take advantage of an alliance with other parties to overcome that threshold. An alliance of religiously conservative opposition parties—the new parties of Davutoglu and Babacan, along with the Felicity Party, for instance—could together account for more than 10 percent of votes, allowing all three groups to win seats in parliament.

If Erdogan’s political strategy continues to include attacking institutions like Sehir University, however, Davutoglu might have an easier time than he expected in the next round of elections. A social media campaign by the university’s alumni, many of whom are AKP voters, has highlighted the role played by Sehir in allowing the emergence of a religiously conservative intelligentsia in Turkey—exactly the demographic that Erdogan regularly claims to champion.

“I criticized Ahmet Davutoglu’s political ideas, his stances, and most of the steps he took,” Yusuf Kaplan, a columnist for the staunchly pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak, wrote this week. “All this does not require the destruction or crippling of one of the most beautiful institutions we have built in this country. … If Sehir University collapses, the people of this country, the Islamic segments, will never dare to embark on such grand and difficult projects again.”

Umar Farooq is a journalist based in Istanbul. Twitter: @UmarFarooq_