As prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu was one of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s closest allies. In an interview, he now accuses the Turkish president of driving his country into the ground.
Interview Conducted By Sebnem Arsu und Maximilian Popp
It’s shortly before midnight when Ahmet Davutoğlu arrives for an interview at a guesthouse in the Old Town of Antakya, near the Syrian border. He has spent the entire day rushing from appointment to appointment in nearly 40-degree-Celsius (104-degree-Fahrenheit) heat, meeting supporters of his Future Party as well as speaking with young people and local business owners. Davutoğlu, 62, served as foreign minister from 2009 to 2014 and then as prime minister from 2014 to 2016, both under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In 2019, he bolted from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) following a dispute with Erdoğan and founded his own party. Since then, he has been traveling around the country to build up support for his party. Davutoğlu believes Erdoğan’s administration will soon collapse, and the former prime minister aspires to be part of a new government.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Davutoğlu, you served as foreign minister and head of government under President Erdoğan. Why are you turning against him now?
Davutoğlu: There wasn’t just one reason or just one episode. It was a process. As Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy adviser and as foreign minister, I was responsible for diplomacy. My powers were limited. When I became prime minister, I realized that the country needed to be fundamentally reformed in terms of democracy, rule of law, and transparency. After my election victory in November 2015, I presented a reform package that included measures such as to change the criteria used for awarding government contracts. No one – no minister, no businessman – should continue to be able to enrich themselves at the public’s expense.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you personally witnessed instances of government corruption?
Davutoğlu: Yes. Power corrupts. When Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003, he still wanted to curb corruption in the country. Today, it is more rampant than ever. I wanted to fight nepotism, but my efforts were in vain. After I left office, Erdoğan’s son-in-law became the most powerful man in the system. I stood up for ethics in politics. Erdoğan didn’t want that.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you have to go because you were too critical?
Davutoğlu: I was too visible and too efficient as prime minister. Erdoğan couldn’t deal with that. He accepts no one alongside him. He turned the party leadership against me. I realized that it is impossible to implement reforms in this kind of environment. That’s why I stepped down as prime minister.
DER SPIEGEL: You are presenting yourself as an outsider, but you were part of the system for almost two decades.
Davutoğlu: I categorically reject that. If I had tolerated corruption, mismanagement, nepotism and attacks on the rule of law, I would still be prime minister or in some other leadership position today.
DER SPIEGEL: You were in charge of the government when the military was waging war against its own people in the Kurdish regions. Do you feel partly to blame for the decline of Turkish democracy?
Davutoğlu: No. Your description is incorrect. It was not a war against Kurds, but rather an anti-terrorist operation against groups like PKK (eds: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Daesh. I would order it again today in exactly the same way.
DER SPIEGEL: Erdoğan started out as a democratic reformer. What went wrong?
Davutoğlu: We were on the right track. In 2010, we passed a reform package that was met with approval even by large parts of the opposition. The turning point came in 2013 …
DER SPIEGEL: … with the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, which were quashed by the police.
Davutoğlu: Not only with that. FETÖ (eds: the movement led by Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen) was grabbing for power more and more shamelessly. And Erdoğan was becoming more and more authoritarian. As prime minister, I tried to fix the state. But I wasn’t able to accomplish what I wanted to.
DER SPIEGEL: Your critics say you were Erdoğan’s puppet.
Davutoğlu: Anyone who calls me a puppet doesn’t understand Turkish politics. Forty-seven out of 50 members of the AKP’s central committee signed a petition against me in 2016 at Erdoğan’s insistence. Then they secretly apologized to me. They said: “Hocam (eds: my teacher), your criticisms were correct.”
DER SPIEGEL: Why is it that so few AKP politicians publicly rebel against Erdoğan? Out of fear?
Davutoğlu: Some are afraid, yes. But a lot of them simply benefit too much from the system. It isn’t usual for a politician in Turkey to break with his own party, especially when it is in power.
DER SPIEGEL: Why did you only leave the AKP in 2019 and not earlier?
Davutoğlu: I tried to change the party from within. My aim was never to topple Erdoğan. I wanted him to have success as long as his behavior was compatible with democracy. When he introduced the presidential system in 2017, I thought to myself: “Give him a chance; maybe he’ll improve.” We had three long meetings, and I presented him with three letters with reform proposals. But my hopes were dashed.
DER SPIEGEL: At that point in time, thousands of opposition members were already sitting in prison, even though they were innocent.
Davutoğlu: You have to keep in mind the mental state that Turkey was in following the coup attempt in 2016. It was an attack on our democracy. At that stage, I did my best to protect the democratic system even though I wasn’t in office.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you afraid of winding up in prison yourself?
Davutoğlu: No. I have my disagreements with Erdoğan. But if it comes to a coup d’état, then it goes without saying that I will stand behind the democratically legitimate president. But now things are starting to slip. When I traveled around Turkey for the Future Party before the pandemic, people asked me: “Why did you break with the AKP?” Nobody asks me that anymore.
DER SPIEGEL: The Turkish economy is in serious trouble, and government institutions, such as the judiciary, have been severely damaged. What does Turkey need to do to get through this crisis?
Davutoğlu: This crisis is worse than the 2001 crisis because this time it isn’t just the economy that is affected, but also the very foundations of the state. But I’m still convinced that we can find our way out of this low point if we can succeed in restoring democratic principles and renewing our institutions.
DER SPIEGEL: What makes you so optimistic about this?
Davutoğlu: The Turks have an enormous yearning for democracy and the rule of law. I feel that every day when I travel through the country. No matter where I go, people tell me: “Hocam, three years ago, I voted for the AKP. But not this time.”
DER SPIEGEL: Is change possible with Erdoğan?
Davutoğlu: I have little hope of that.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you expect there will be new elections?
Davutoğlu: Yes. I can’t imagine that the coalition between Erdoğan and Devlet Bahçeli’s MHP (eds: Nationalist Movement Party) will last much longer. These people around Bahçeli fought against the AKP until just recently. Erdoğan allied himself with them not out of conviction, but because he couldn’t find another partner. He knows he can’t trust Bahçeli. I expect that there will be new elections as early as spring 2022.
DER SPIEGEL: You’ve known Erdoğan for many years. What impression is he making on you right now?
Davutoğlu: Leaders are at their weakest when they think they are particularly strong. Erdoğan has surrounded himself with yes-men. He has lost sight of the reality in the country. There is no one left in this government who is capable of handling a crisis like the one we are experiencing. Erdoğan is rapidly losing his standing among the people. He is facing a difficult decision: Either he continues with Bahçeli and alienates even more voters, Kurds, liberals and young conservatives. Or he dissolves the coalition and faces new elections.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think Erdoğan would accept an election defeat?
Davutoğlu: Yes. As the former prime minister of this country, I guarantee the citizens that there will be fair and free elections.
DER SPIEGEL: Why are you so sure about that? In 2019, Erdoğan had the results for the mayoral election in Istanbul thrown out and then ordered a new election.
Davutoğlu: And what happened then?
DER SPIEGEL: The AKP suffered a resounding defeat, and the Social Democrat Ekrem İmamoğlu became mayor. But that won’t necessarily happen in a national election.
Davutoğlu: That will happen. Elections have a long tradition in Turkey. Erdoğan can challenge the outcome of the vote, but he won’t succeed at it.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think it’s possible that Erdoğan is provoking unrest to safeguard his power?
Davutoğlu: There may be people around him who will try that. But they will fail. Owing to the catastrophic economic situation, popular dissatisfaction with the government is so enormous that manipulative maneuvers won’t play a decisive role in the next election.
DER SPIEGEL: Some fear that Turkey could slide into civil war if Erdoğan loses his grip on power.
Davutoğlu: The people of Turkey won’t allow that, just as they didn’t allow the coup plotters to seize power in the country in 2016. As politicians, we shouldn’t stir panic for no reason. We should embolden people. I would like to see us all tone down the rhetoric, as authoritarian regimes are the only ones that benefit from polarization. If things calm down, no one will vote for Erdoğan’s ignorant, incompetent government.
DER SPIEGEL: What role do you see for yourself in Turkish politics?
Davutoğlu: It is up to the voters to decide that.
DER SPIEGEL: Does Islam have any significance in your party?
Davutoğlu: Personally, I am a devout Muslim and respect all religious traditions. Religious pluralism is a principle of my party. Its founders include Greeks, Armenians and Assyrian Christians as well as Sunni and Alevi Muslims. Politics and faith should be kept strictly separate. During the coup, we saw how religion is misused.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you be willing to join forces with the Social Democrats and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to oust Erdoğan?
Davutoğlu: It is not my goal to topple Erdoğan. My goal is restoring democracy in Turkey. I want freedom of expression, the rule of law, and the separation of powers to return to this country. And, yes, I am willing to work with a wide variety of parties to make that happen.
DER SPIEGEL: Does that mean you would support Istanbul Mayor İmamoğlu as the opposition’s joint presidential candidate?
Davutoğlu: I don’t want to speculate on individual names here. For me, there are basically three kinds of cooperation. The first is dialogue: We are already talking with all the other parties. The second is project-based collaboration: For example, we agree with the Social Democrats and the Iyi Party that we want to abolish the presidential system and restore parliamentary democracy. For me, the coalition question ranks only third: It only comes up at all when an election date has been set. Thinking aloud about coalitions now would merely serve to strengthen the AKP-MHP alliance.
DER SPIEGEL: Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker is causing an uproar in Turkey with YouTube videos in which he accuses the Erdoğan government of having ties to organized crime. Did you notice any of this when you were in office?
Davutoğlu: No. His allegations refer almost exclusively to the time after me.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think they are credible?
Davutoğlu: Yes, at least some. The judiciary should have launched an investigation long ago. Prosecutors and police need to follow up on Peker’s tips. An investigative commission should also be formed in parliament. But none of that is happening. Erdoğan has remained silent on the allegations for weeks. This government is incapable of responding to crises.
DER SPIEGEL: Is Turkey a mafia state under Erdoğan?
Davutoğlu: Not all of Turkey. But, yes, parts of the government are mafia-like.
DER SPIEGEL: Should Erdoğan and his allies be put on trial after a change in power?
Davutoğlu: I don’t want to make exactly the same mistake as the current government and interfere with the judiciary. As a matter of principle, cases of corruption and abuse of power must be investigated by independent courts.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Davutoğlu, we thank you for this interview.