“Let’s suppose you’re Prime Minister again,” I asked, perhaps I should have said President now, “what would your priority be?” The weather outside is overcast, with lighting flashes; a storm is about to start. There were a few days left for the opening of the Party’s headquarters. We hold our meeting in the reception room inside a three-story house with a garden, where he currently works from, in Beysukent suburb of Ankara. Future Party (FP) head Ahmet Davutoğlu paused for a moment, and then said “freedom of thought.” “Why?” I asked. “Because no one in Turkey should fear prosecution for expressing their ideas,” he said. “Besides,” he added, “if people cannot express their ideas freely, we cannot even objectively identify problems.” “There’s the example of Osman Kavala,” I began to say, as he interrupted me, declaring that “there are a lot of names.” “I cannot tell you that I would set Kavala, or other thought prisoners free the next day if I was in office. Because that would be interfering with the court’s workings, something we struggle with at present. We must build an environment where courts take independent and impartial decisions. We cannot solve these with a single person in a single move. Judges who convict under pressure will begin doing what the law says. The ruling cases of the Constitutional Court and the ECHR will become applicable, starting a real normalization. But the point here is to achieve a real normalization that transcends people and issues. To do this, everyone should act together to establish a state of law, the structure of which wouldn’t be possible to alter…
Why didn’t he do it as Prime Minister?
Now it was my turn to interrupt. “In this case,” I said, “why didn’t you do those when you were Prime Minister?” Davutoğlu used to be the chief foreign policy adviser to -then- Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan between 2003-2009, then Foreign Minister between 2009 and 2014, and following Erdoğan’s election as President, Prime Minister and Chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Davutoğlu has resigned from AKP to establish his FP in 2019. A shadow dragged across his face. “There were troubles,” he said. Davutoğlu has said earlier that Erdoğan had wanted to see him “puppet Prime Minister.”
“When I was Prime Minister,” he continued, ”I did my best to preserve freedom of thought and freedom of the press. Even amid the fight against terrorism, which was a challenging time. In my prime ministry, not a single example can be cited where I have intervened directly or indirectly with any media or media member.” I paused. So did he. “There is one exception,” he then answered. (*) “That was when prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz got martyred. I asked the newspapers not to use the photo where he has a gun pushed against his head. For me, this was not a matter of freedom of the press; it was about media ethics. Nowhere in the world can such a picture be tolerated. I criticized this attitude when a media outlet printed the picture. Then that news outlet published an editorial criticizing me. But even after this extremely harsh article, my attitude did not change.”
“The people should trust me because…”
“So,” I asked, “the people trusted you once. But even though you were Prime Minister, you are saying that you couldn’t get through the troubles. Why should the people trust you again?” After all, all of the AKP decisions during a whole period bore his signature. The Syria policy, alleged corruption cases… Eager, he inclined out of the chair he sat on. “The people should trust me because I trust the people, and know that the people will trust me,” he said. “After the June 7 election in 2015, as promised, I didn’t leave my country without a government, despite AKP not holding the majority in the Assembly. Under the most challenging conditions, as terrorist attacks carried on, I conducted the fight against terrorism within a democratic rule of law.
“When I was forced to leave Prime Ministry in May 2016, there wasn’t a single barricade or ditch [a major PKK offense strongly countered by security fortces -my] left in our provinces and districts, as promised. And again, as promised, I fulfilled all election promises made before November 1, 2015. The increase in the minimum wage by 30% in three months was notable. Most important of all, I demonstrated that power can be achieved in this country without corruption.
No AKP “Golden Age”
“So I tried, Mr. Yetkin,” he said. Had the people had been satisfied with my prime minister, I couldn’t go out in public, let alone established a new political party. If I can walk my country with my head held high today, that is because I trust the people and I believe that people trust me. The reason why I left AKP is clear. I saw that running the country in line with the things that render politics meaningful to me, like transparency and political ethics, without dismantling the government and therefore putting political stability at risk, was no longer possible. I took four years to travel across Anatolia after I quit my post as prime minister. People understand me. If I didn’t trust that people trust me, I wouldn’t set out on this journey.”
“And there’s another issue,” continued Davutoğlu. “You’ve asked about my conception of Turkey, whether it’s different from my previous conception. Returning to the AKP’s ‘Golden Age’ is not part of my conception for Turkey; besides, there is no AKP Golden Age that we can take as a reference for today. It would be against the dialectics of life; you cannot step into the same river twice. The Turkey I envisage today is one where the balance between freedom and security is established. It is a concept of citizenship where everyone can live with their thoughts, beliefs, ethnic or cultural affiliation comfortably and without fear. That’s why we named our party “Future Party”, so we can look forward, to the future.”
That one regret
No, what Davutoğlu wishes he hadn’t done is not the Syrian policy, for which the public considers him a liability of first degree. He believes that they have applied humane diplomacy there, preserving Turkey’s interest as far as the situation allowed. In short, Davutoğlu doesn’t believe there was anything wrong with the Syrian policy; he’s neither self-critical nor remorseful on that issue. On the crisis regarding the Mavi Marmara attack on Israel, he says that they tried to prevent the crisis and that they worked hard to protect our country’s integrity and the rights of our citizens afterward. He added that in March 2013, while he was Foreign Minister, he had officially apologized to Israel. He claims that the compensation agreement with Israel was made after him, adding that he does not approve of it. So there is no self-criticism there.
The mistake: not resisting “in-party coup”
Davutoğlu carried on: “Before the AKP on September 12, 2015, I had returned to Ankara after visiting Yüksekova and Iğdır provinces following terror attacks where more than thirty security officers were martyred. Upon my return, I saw that the candidates, to be announced in a single list, had already been selected upon Erdoğan’s request.” Davutoğlu didn’t object to this, and that he regrets. “It was over then. But when I saw that the people that I would pick as candidates were the majority in the list, I didn’t object. The fight against terrorism carried on across the country and was at a critical stage. Furthermore, the November 1 elections were approaching. I did not want to give the appearance of a split in the party with a two-candidate congress struggle.”
“I saw that the congress list was prepared upon Erdogan’s order. Through this in-party coup, I realized that I was wrong to trust fellow party members. I could not have predicted that politics would become so unprincipled.”
But I realized that I was wrong to trust the fellow members that I did trust on that list on April 29, 2016, with the in-party coup during the Central Decision and Management Board meeting of the party. I had to insist at the regular congress held on September 12, 2015, and take my list to the Congress. However, I did not and could not predict that politics would become so unprincipled. How could I? I couldn’t measure that my friends whose personalities I trusted would sign a text that they did not believe, to order. This is where words fail,” he said.
The party-list elected that day would, in the days to follow, knock the legs out from under Davutoğlu and discharge him. Here I asked if I could interrupt: “Who prepared this list while you were attending martyr funerals in Anatolia?” I asked. “That’s widely known,” he replied. “But whom?”, I recurred. “The known story is true to an extent,” he said, “it was Mr. Binali [Yıldırım], with the knowledge of Mr. Tayyip [Erdoğan].
What he’s proud of
But what was he glad to have done? “The deal with signed with the EU,” said Davutoğlu without hesitation. He was referring to the normalization move for the relations with the EU, made on March 18, 2016, over Syrian refugees. “If we could have applied that deal, Turkey would be much different now.” “That deal wasn’t just about refugees,” he added. “If my prime ministry continued, visa exemption would go into effect by the end of June and would be revisited per the Customs Union. Even these two developments would add an extraordinary momentum to our economy through the increase in human and commodity mobility with the EU, our biggest market. Besides, our diplomatic maneuver area would have expanded through summits held twice a year with all EU country leaders. New chapters would open up and the integration process would accelerate. To prevent irregular migration, 1 million Syrian refugees would systematically pass onto Europe, and Turkey would receive funding of approximately 6 billion euros.”
Two months after that deal, Davutoğlu would be forced to resign. A few months later, Fethullah Gülen’s, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher’s organization would mobilize, resulting in the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.
Pros and cons
I’m one of those who believe Davutoğlu could criticize Erdoğan’s actions, and also should offer some self-criticism. After all, he holds first-degree responsibility in bringing the AKP to where it is today. For example, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was indeed driven back during the ditch-and-barricade conflict period. But at the expense of the civilians who have suffered dire consequences. I’m also not convinced that the Syria policy wasn’t faulty and that we weren’t reeled into a swamp. I believe the Mavi Marmara issue with Israel could be resolve without disastrous consequences. Of course, Erdoğan was in power when Fethullah Gülen rose to the state ranks. But Davutoğlu was part of the cabinet. Journalists were imprisoned during Davutoğlu’s prime ministry, too. During the campaign against the Academics for Peace, Davutoğlu was in office.
However, Davutoğlu is different from Erdoğan; he is not a hardliner when it comes to the issues of freedom of thought and expression. Also when it comes to corruption allegations. For example, there was a criminal investigation into corruption during December 17-15, 2013 where many key politicians from the government were investigated. Davutoğlu, in that context, had explicitly called for the acquittal of four ministers. Even then, the transparency bill that Davutoğlu had proposed and Erdoğan rejected on the ground that “there wouldn’t be anybody left even as district head” found an echo in the press. We also knew he had said that we “cannot let trolls run the country.” Yes, the EU deal was important. Had it not been interrupted by the coup and applied, we would indeed have other things on our plate today. Had an “in-party coup” not toppled him, and had there not been a failed military coup attempt, him and Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, would be reaching common ground, reducing polarization. We’ve gone over quite a lot of topics with Davutoğlu. As we’re both eager conversationalists, once since I had to leave some time to the next guest, I had to leave. Only later I realized that we hadn’t even had the chance to have a photo together. So that’s for another time, where we’ll cover other topics.
(*)The exception Davutoğlu mentioned was the Hürriyet daily. After that incident, that reporter was banned from tracking news on Davutoğlu.