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Turkey's PM and President Increasingly at Odds

  • Dorian Jones

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l) with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Aug. 25, 2015.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (l) with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Aug. 25, 2015.

Growing political differences are emerging again between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as the country faces increasing domestic and international woes.

The Turkish military crackdown on the Kurdish rebel group the PKK has become the focal point of growing differences between the president and prime minister.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu opened the door to a resumption of peace talks with the PKK if it withdrew its forces from Turkey. That drew a swift rebuke from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who ruled out talks, saying the rebels either had to surrender or be killed.

When the prime minister voiced concern over the controversial pre-trial detention of academics who organized a petition calling for a resumption of peace talks with the PKK, Erdogan again contradicted Davutoglu.

“Why shouldn't academics be detained?” Erdogan asked, openly challenging the prime minister. “Turkey should consider stripping supporters of terrorism of their citizenship.”

Carnegie Institute visiting scholar Sinan Ulgen says the divisions expose a deepening power struggle.

"In Turkey, constitutionally, the prime minister has executive authority," said Ulgen. "But we are now witnessing a governance where the president has taken the initiative to speak on almost all executive matters. So it is unavoidable that we shall see and continue to see these types of differences of opinions emerging. But so far, Erdogan continues to dominate the political agenda."

Iron grip on ruling party

Erdogan retains an iron grip on the ruling AKP and the loyalty of many ministers in Davutoglu’s government.

While Erdogan was pushing for the stripping of citizenship of terrorist sympathizers, Davutoglu said it was not on the agenda. Davutoglu was then contradicted by his justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, who declared steps are being taken.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, center, arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 18, 2016.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, center, arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 18, 2016.

Political columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper and Al Monitor website says, despite Davutoglu's weak party position and isolation in government, it is still not easy for Erdogan to remove him.

"The AKP and the country is now like a big ship in a storm. Do you want a fight in the captain’s cabin, when we are dealing with so many domestic and external [issues], which might end up landing everyone in a much worst position than before? I think this is another thing he [Erdogan] has to factor in."

Pushing for constitutional reforms

Erdogan, the first president elected by the people, is pushing for constitutional reform to extend his presidential powers; but, observers say Davutoglu is not enthusiastic.

Davutoglu recently described a presidential system strictly controlled by a strong checks and balances mechanism.

While Erdogan chose Davutoglu as the leader of the AK Party, Idiz says since the November election victory, he has become very much his own man.

FILE - People wave flags and hold a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they celebrate the ruling AK Party's election win, in Ankara, Turkey Nov. 2, 2015.

FILE - People wave flags and hold a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they celebrate the ruling AK Party's election win, in Ankara, Turkey Nov. 2, 2015.

"He may have been implanted there by Erdogan initially and he may have lost the first elections, but he did win the second. And not only did he win it, he brought home a landslide. So at one point or another he is going to rely on this fact. Davutoglu does represent a more moderate and perhaps slightly liberal line. I notice from my contacts with diplomats in Ankara that they point to this," said Idiz.

Western diplomats increasingly talk of Davutoglu as a voice of moderation, which observers say is only likely to infuriate Erdogan further.

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