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Could a PM Davutoglu repair Turkey's foreign policy?

Turkey’s once overambitious foreign minister is the most likely candidate to take over the AKP leadership and become prime minister, but few expect major changes in Ankara’s foreign policy orientation.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is emerging as the most likely candidate to replace Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was elected president on Aug. 10, and become the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and prime minister. Rasim Ozan Kutahyali explained the reasons why in his Aug. 18 Al-Monitor post.

If Davutoglu proves to be the AKP’s choice, many will be wondering what kind of signal that will send to the world, given his past mistakes that have contributed to Turkey’s isolation in the Middle East and left it with few admirers in the West.

One person who remains skeptical on this score is retired diplomat Murat Ozcelik, Turkey’s former ambassador to Baghdad under Davutoglu in 2009-2011 — prior to which he served as special envoy to Iraq for two years.

“This will be a signal policies that have been maintained since 2011 and that have not been approved of internationally will continue,” Ozcelik, who lectures around the world on the situation in Iraq and Syria, told daily Hurriyet in an exclusive interview on Aug. 18.

According to Ozcelik, only the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas will be happy to see Davutoglu assume this post. He doubts, however, that others in the Middle East including Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan will be overjoyed.

Ozcelik is a known critic of the AKP’s policies since 2010. He says Turkey lost its leadership capacity and ability to take initiatives in the Middle East after that date following a serious of “disastrous mistakes.”

Ozcelik’s remarks reflect a prevalent view about Davutoglu. His failed “zero problems with neighbors” policy continues to be mocked today. His critics and opponents maintain that Turkey has hardly any friends left nearby because of the government’s policies.

One of Davutoglu’s harshest critics in the past was columnist Akif Beki, who served as Erdogan’s media adviser and spokesman in 2004-2005 and who remains a prominent AKP supporter. In a piece in June 2010 for daily Radikal, which I wrote for at the time, Beki blasted Davutoglu’s self-centered, self-promoting approach.

“He has to turn everything he lays his hands on into a big success story. He presents his files as if he is writing headlines for a newspaper. He forces every opportunity and feels the need to be in every photograph. In the end, we have a show-centered foreign policy,” Beki wrote, also taking opponents of the government by surprise.

Arguing that “foreign policy can not tolerate populism,” Beki, in remarks echoed later by Ozcelik, said an overambitious drive for success in diplomacy can lead to disastrous outcomes.

In a new and somewhat convoluted Hurriyet piece on Aug. 15, where he now writes, Beki backpedaled on his 2010 remarks and suggested that despite his shortcomings, Davutoglu is the best person to lead the AKP and become prime minister.

Beki’s 2010 article is nevertheless being referred to by prominent columnists today, who suggest that not everyone in the AKP can be happy over Davutoglu becoming prime minister. But Davutoglu reportedly has a support base in the AKP based on soundings conducted by party executives.

This means he will be able to run the party until the general elections planned for 2015, while his opponents in the party take heed of Erdogan’s admonitions against members who might destabilize the AKP prior to the elections.

Davutoglu’s task will be to make the AKP stronger than it is now in the next general elections, so that it gets enough seats in parliament to change the constitution and fulfill Erdogan’s dream of introducing a presidential system.

If the AKP cannot secure this, or comes out weaker than today even if it wins the elections, this could result in a debilitating leadership struggle. Even today there are members who are disgruntled over the sidelining of outgoing President Abdullah Gul, a founding member of the AKP, who they wanted to hand the party's leadership and become prime minister.

Cengiz Candar explains in his Aug. 15 post for Al-Monitor why there is no room for Gul in Erdogan’s Turkey. But Gul has declared his intention to remain in politics, and this could be a complication for Erdogan and Davutoglu.

Gul’s inner circle has never made it a secret to journalists, myself included, that Gul has been less than approving of Davutoglu’s overambitious policies as foreign minister, especially when these have resulted in accusations of “neo-Ottomanism” being leveled at Turkey.

Gul, a strong supporter of Turkey’s bid for EU membership, has also been unhappy over Turkey’s weakening links with the West. He also made this apparent in his annual speeches on the opening of parliament. Gul has also not given great support to the idea of a presidential system for Turkey, arguing it is more important to strengthen the present parliamentary system and bring it up to European standards.

It is also significant that Yeni Safak, who is close to Erdogan and Davutoglu, has started attacking Gul, albeit indirectly through his close adviser and press spokesman Ahmet Sever.

Cem Kucuk, a columnist for the paper, wrote a scathing piece on Aug. 17, headlined “Ahmet Sever, the enemy of the new Turkey,” in which he accused Sever, a former journalist and one of Gul’s closest associates, of lobbying hard to make Gul take over the AKP.

Hence, all the signs indicate that Davutoglu will have his job cut out for him should he become prime minister. He will have to focus his energy on the need to keep the party unified and strong to secure the victory it needs in the next elections.

This will leave little time for foreign policy and the need to find a new direction given its current failures in this domain.

Meanwhile, it will be Erdogan as president, and not Davutoglu as prime minister, who will continue to determine policy. Erdogan has made his intentions in this regard sufficiently clear, and there are no indications that he is aiming for a change of tack in the foreign policy area any time soon.

He has gone out of his way with regard to issues such as Syria, Egypt or Israel and can’t backtrack easily without loosing face among his supporters as the AKP prepares for key elections.

The most likely outcome, therefore, is that Turkey’s dithering foreign policy will remain much the same for the foreseeable future should Davutoglu become prime minister, as many expect him to.

This means in effect that Turkey will continue to be driven by regional events it has no power to control, rather than becoming a proactive player that has the ability to influence the course of events.

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