War of words sparked by former PM Davutoğlu signals political conflict to come in Turkey

Summer is quickly drawing to a close, but there are already clear signs that Turkish politics has a hot autumn in store.

The two new political parties helmed by former leading figures from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) can be expected within a few months.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it clear that he will not make it easy for his former colleagues, whom he has already marked out as “traitors”.

In the end, why would he? The clearest objective for the creation of the new movements is to break Erdoğan’s hold on power, which at this stage is near absolute, in an institutional sense at least.

In former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s case, a bruised ego may have been a major motivation in the decision to form a breakaway political movement.

Davutoğlu was forced to resign in 2016, the year after he helped his party regain a parliamentary majority in snap elections held months after they lost it for the first time. He was forced out after anonymous leaks listed a long series of conflicts between himself and Erdoğan.

The former prime minister returned to the political scene this year after sniffing weakness in the AKP, whose performance in the March 31 local elections was well below par.

The vehemence of his rhetoric since his return gives the impression he still feels hard done by. On August 23, Davutoğlu convincingly burnt his bridges in a speech implying that senior AKP figures, as well as their ruling coalition partners in the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), had played a role in the wave of bombing attacks that took place between the two elections in 2015.

Davutoğlu’s claim quickly drew demands of a full explanation from opposition figures and from groups organised by families of those killed in the attacks.

But among the voices demanding he speak were some of Erdoğan’s most strident supporters. Sabah columnist Hilal Kaplan told the former prime minister to tell all in an August 27 column that pointed the finger at Davutoğlu as a collaborator with the outlawed Gülen religious group, which the government holds responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt.

Kaplan’s column, moreover, laid the blame for the period of violence that broke out during those months at Davutoğlu’s feet. A two-year peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had been fighting the Turkish state for decades for Kurdish self-rule, broke down almost immediately after the AKP lost its majority in the June 2015 elections.

It was a significant intervention from Kaplan, whose political influence is widely acknowledged in Turkey. Kaplan is seen as an important member of the group of writers and activists who are believed to have engineered Davutoğlu’s resignation by releasing the documents in 2015.

Members of this so-called Pelican group are frequently among Erdoğan’s entourage. The group is also thought to be closely linked to the president’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who also has ties to Sabah. Before entering politics, Albayrak served as CEO to Sabah’s owner, Çalık Holding. His brother, Serhat Albayrak, is on the board of Çalık Holding’s media group, Turkuvaz.

So, Kaplan’s column can be read as a stark warning to Davutoğlu: whatever he has to say about Erdoğan’s government, they will hit back, hard. In the end, only one of the sides in this fight has the power to throw the other in jail. Reinforcing the message was another column by a leading writer for Sabah, Mehmet Barlas, who also implored the former prime minister to say his piece, and also stated that the difficulties faced by Turkey during Davutoğlu’s 20 months as prime minister could be laid at his door.

Whether or not Davutoğlu’s statements will deter Erdoğan and the pro-government media from revealing dirt on the former prime minister remains to be seen.

There is, however, every chance that the media will be brought to bear against him in the kind of low-grade, blanket smear campaign that is employed against opposition politicians whenever an election draws near.

Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was smeared as a “terrorist” for months leading up to the March 31 local elections on the front pages of Turkey’s large pro-government press contingent. In April, he survived a lynch attempt from a crowd spouting slogans that were eerily similar to those newspapers’ headlines.

Kaplan’s column – which questioned why Davutoğlu’s resignation came shortly before the coup attempt – could well be a sign that a similar campaign will be run against Davutoğlu and his new party, linking them to the outlawed Gülen movement.

It is a link that was explicitly been made by Patriotic Party leader Doğu Perinçek in August. The leftist nationalist politician, whose anti-Western and hard-line Kurdish stance has brought him onside with Erdoğan’s government, called both Davutoğlu’s and the other political party planned by former AKP heavyweights the “political wing” of the Gülen movement.