Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in conversation: Part 1

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's has announced he will resign, tightening President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's grip on power. The AKP government has ruled Turkey for 14 years, presiding over dramatic economic growth and increased global prestige. Critics say that internal opposition has been silenced, democratic freedoms trampled and corruption is still rife. 

Richard Falk Ahmet Davutoğlu
17 December 2014

This conversation, which took place on September 28 2014, is in four parts - here is part 2, part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so, along with the many responses we have invited: Behlül Özkan on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay on why Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park on how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller on the mass arrests of journalists this weekend; Firdevs Robinson on why Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak on how they live in a parellel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı on why we should not have published this piece at all.


Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu speaks at headquarters of his ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, May 5, 2016. He announced his resignation on Thursday. Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP/Press Association Images

Part I. A tale of two states?

Richard Falk: Eric Rouleau, French ambassador to Turkey in the early 1990s, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in which he indicated his doubts about the capacity of an elected Turkish government ever to gain control of the ‘deep state’ through which the Turkish armed forces and intelligence services exercised strong control over the Turkish government, including the prerogative to authorize periodic military coups. How did the AKP leadership achieve this goal, given the intensity of the opposition mounted by the more secular elites displaced from power? And given the recent turbulence in Turkey and the region, is this an irreversible process? In other words, has this ‘civilianization of the Turkish state’ a reasonable prospect of permanence?

Ahmet Davutoğlu: The civilianization of politics has been the most important success of our era, over the last 13 years. There have been three eras of Turkish democracy: the first one party, one state period, based on the charismatic leadership of Atatürk and followed by İnönü. There were some attempts at opposition, but at the end of the day the military and civil bureaucracy were a social elite, a condition dating back to the Tanzimat era in Ottoman times. Only after 1950 was there multi-party democracy in Turkey.

Yesterday, at my meeting with our ministers and later, some journalists, I pointed out that during the democratic, multi-party era, there was in fact no real democracy despite all the multi-party political maneuvering. The military and civil bureaucracy controlled the main substance and methods of politics but allowed civilian authority to operate in certain restricted areas. When you consider the successes of such a previous leader as Adnan Menderes [Turkish prime minister, 1950 – 1960], this restricted civilian mandate was evident. He was known as ‘the builder of the roads’, and not known for his foreign policy or many other achievements aside from infrastructure improvements. Then there was Suleyman Demirel, best regarded as ‘the king of the dams’. Halil Turgut Ozal came next, who opened up the economy, liberalizing it by strengthening the private sector.

There are certain areas where this deep state has always operated. Even among ordinary citizens, the general perception was that when it came to foreign policy and such strategic issues as security and defense, as well as the legal structures of the system and macro-economic relations with the international economy, these were understood to be policy areas where the civilian authority should not and could not hold sway. This was what all the previous leaders had understood, and they acted accordingly.

For example, take the question of Cyprus. Some people familiar with political realities in Turkey understand that civilian influence on the resolution of the conflict is very limited. Some of our critics still insist that foreign policy should be nation-based and above politics. In effect, they are saying that only the bureaucracy in Ankara can decide what should constitute our Cyprus policy, based on its reading of the national interest, in coordination with the thinking of defense and intelligence.

So, there until we came to power, the prime minister had no comprehensive control of government and its policies. Even after a military coup d’état, you can clearly see that the politicians were not able to escape military supervision, which in turn led to a tutelage system based on the authority of the military. Some prime ministers referred to the military as in possession of the ultimate authority. This encouraged the military to express its opinions on almost all issues. For example on education, civilian leaders were expected not to meddle with education. Since it was viewed as national education it was treated as falling under the domain of military authority. The same reasoning applied to foreign policy: it too was seen as a dimension of safeguarding the nation and therefore fell within the responsibilities of the military. Quite remarkably, nobody questioned the criteria relied upon to identify an issue as ‘national.’

In contrast, during the 13 years in which we have run the government, we have had many challenges to our policy. Take the Cyprus issue in 2004 [when Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots acceded to the Annan Plan for the reunification of the island, only for it to be rejected by the majority of Greek Cypriots.] We were questioned, we were criticized. Powerful voices in the deep state claimed that we were betraying Turkish national interests because we didn’t follow the previous policy pattern, which basically involved deference to the military. But things have changed, and most influential persons in Turkey now concede that the AKP policy on Cyprus has been a success.

It is the same with respect to the intelligence activities. There has been a debate over MIT’s [the national intelligence organization’s] scope and ethics, at which for the first time ever, civilian management and therefore political control was fully present. Hakan Fidan, the director, had been the target of criticism because influential people in the Turkish government thought that intelligence should not be an independent activity, but carried out under the control of the military. Former Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel once complained that our intelligence services were informing Turkey about military coups in Africa, Latin America, and everywhere else in the world, but not when they occurred in Ankara. Formally, intelligence was located in the prime minister’s office but in practice in 1980, they did not inform Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel when a military coup d’état was being planned, having previously denied this information to Adnan Menderes in 1960, when another military coup d’état was directed at his government. 

Another important area concerns macro-economic policies toward international companies and such international financial institutions as the World Bank. Such matters were viewed as outside the proper domain of politics. Our basic success is to have established a new balance between accountability and responsibility and also a redistribution of expectations about the exercise of governmental authority. Before we came to government, political leaders were responsible for these issues, and were held accountable in the event of failure, but they had no power to decide or institute changes.

When we came in, we said that if we are to be held accountable then we must have full authority to enact and carry out policy. Otherwise it is not reasonable to hold leaders to account for policy failures. This balance, between authority, responsibility and accountability has been reestablished. But it didn’t come about without a struggle.

In 2003 during the Iraqi war, later on the Cyprus question, or again in 2006, when there were anti-government demonstrations before the presidential elections in 2007, we were severely challenged. Several times we were accused of violating the national interest. This ‘guardianship of the national interest’ was the concept used to legitimize the Turkish deep state and its role in governing the country. In 2008, they even tried to ban our party. This bureaucratic oligarchy didn’t like some of our policies. Moreover, they realized that if the national will as embodied in our policies became hegemonic, then their role in our political system would be greatly reduced.

RF: But how were these results achieved?

We can point to 3 success stories, which amount to three reliable policy instruments.

1. The first is full democratization. For example, the position of secretary general of the National Security Council was taken by a civilian in 2004. Before this, the post was always held by a top military officer. Similarly with intelligence. We established a new intelligence mechanism based on civilian control over intelligence, in relation as well to foreign policy. The commitment to democratization strengthened our policy, which in turn was more credible as we won a series of national elections. If we had not won those elections, these bureaucratic forces would have done all in their power to defeat us in Ankara. 

They should not be able to defeat us anywhere in Turkey, and so for the first time in the history of the country, we mobilized the people to back our leadership and its policies. Whenever in our early years there was a crisis, popular support became important. Democratization was our crucial first instrument.

2. The second instrument was our record of economic success. Once we improved the life conditions of many individual citizens, they didn’t want to risk these gains as a result of a military coup that was sure to destabilize the economy. Previously, there had always been a correlation in Turkey between the onset of an economic crisis and the occurrence of a military coup. Two years after the 1957-58 economic crisis the military came to power. In 1977, 78, 79, again a deepening economic crisis and once more the military came to power. To manage the country, the military had to accept painful external conditions in the 1980s, imposed by American administrations or the IMF. Again, the February 28 1997 incident [the clash between the army and the political leadership dubbed the 'postmodern coup', in which the military overthrew the Islamic-oriented coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party] resulted in economic crisis, and a military coup promptly ensued.

Over our 13 years in office, per capita income in Turkey has increased almost four times from $3,000 to almost $11,500. In contrast, during the 1990s the world economy was growing and the world democratizing, but our per capita income hardly changed, rising from $2,700 to $3,000 in the period from 1991 to 2001. During our years, the world economy has been mainly declining, but despite a serious global economic recession our per capita income has actually increased rather dramatically.

This was possible because our government adopted and implemented a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy and was effective and productive in its use of national resources and in mobilizing the economic potential of Anatolia. As a result some cities throughout the country have grown in a spectacular fashion. Economic performance was therefore the second instrument used to achieve civilized politics. If there had not been improvements in the individual lives of our citizens it would have been exceedingly difficult for us to succeed.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu gives a lecture to university students in Istanbul. Demotix/Miyu Layla Suzuki. All righ

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu gives a lecture to university students in Istanbul. Demotix/Miyu Layla Suzuki. All rights reserved.3. The third instrument we relied upon relates to the international status of Turkey and its overall credibility in the international arena. For Turkish people as is the case for many other nations, international successes are importantly linked to a sense of pride and national wellbeing. Turkey’s active foreign policy became a success story not only for the state, but also for individual Turkish citizens. National self-confidence increased. In 2001, when many Turks tried to escape Turkey’s economic crises, they had lost confidence in the system. Now the reverse is true, with Turks and others seeking to live in the country. Now, leading politicians, businessmen and intellectuals throughout the Arab world are trying to obtain Turkish citizenship. This self-confidence has increased our political support at home and overseas.

These are, then, the policy instruments that explain our ability to transform the state: democratization, economic success, active foreign policy and enhanced international status. All contributed to steadily building our popular support. Once you have popular support in every part of Turkey, you become strong in Ankara. When you start to lose this support then the bureaucracy in Ankara stops listening to you and trouble begins.

In 2007, after e-muhtıra [the so-called ‘email coup’] surfaced, for three months people didn’t know whether the AKP could continue to govern or not. Everything ground to a halt. From January to March this year, after incidents staged by the Gülen group, there was a similar episode of paralysis. The bureaucracy fretted about what will happen next? Now they know: after two major AKP successes in local and presidential elections, the situation is stable. Now everybody inside and outside government listens, and everybody wants good relations with the politicians once again.

RF: Could you expand on your belief that the elimination of the Turkish deep state is irreversible?

Is it irreversible? When a country is less developed economically, such developments can easily become reversible. But it is far more difficult to engineer a military coup if the per capita income is over $10,000. People want to hang on to such economic success. Also, in Turkey, a new generation has emerged. Those who were only five years old when we came to power in 2002 are now 18. ... in Turkey, a new generation has emerged. Those who were only five years old when we came to power in 2002 are now 18. They are the new generation. And they knew little about the problems of the past. They only know this period of success.

Now if a period of political or military rule fails to respond to their expectations, nobody will be able to satisfy this generation. The only way to do this is to maintain the same level of economic achievement, to continue to generate success stories. I don’t remember a single country that has endured a military coup when its per capita income was more than $10,000 or $15,000. It is difficult for a military leadership to create the kind of success story that satisfies the middle class. In a country where a $2,000-3,000 per capita income exists, people might welcome a coup thinking that the future could be better. Not now in Turkey.

The process of democratization in Turkey is also irreversible because we have enacted several reforms. For example, it is now less feasible to ban a political party in Turkey, unlike in the past. In fact, we tried to make it impossible, but the other parties wouldn’t support us in the 2010 referendum. But it is very difficult. At this time a political party can be banned only if the parliament so decides, and the Grand National Assembly is not willing to endure the fallout, given the wider political realities.

On this, a comparison of the presidential elections in 2007 and 2014 is encouraging. During the 2007 election period, several statements were made by the military regarding education policy and the qualifications for the presidency. Important generals were saying, “This type of president we don’t want”. In this year’s presidential election, they were, by contrast, silent. The military now in Turkey is a purely professional institution, loyal to democratic traditions and forces. They know very well that if there is economic success in the country, the military will be strong. And nobody can guarantee that this success would continue if another administration, military or non-military, suddenly came to power.

Even in the European democracies you don’t see such a success story as we have enjoyed during the last twelve years: we won three general elections, two local elections, two referenda, and one presidential election. In 12 years we won each election with an increasing margin. We started with 36% of the popular vote, and we received 52% in the presidential elections despite the participation of 13 opposition parties. So we believe that democratization has become irreversible.

RF: Does the new generation of military officers share this embrace of the democratic character of the Turkish state?

AD: Yes, definitely. We took steps to make this happen. What was key was a revolution in the defense industry. Before, everything had to be purchased abroad, including the least sophisticated weapons systems; tanks, warplanes, warships, and even the most simple armaments. But now we are building our own warships and developing our national capacity to do so. That is giving assurances to the military that along with the economic success of the country and in addition to the enhanced international status of Turkey, they will become stronger as the country becomes more self-reliant.

RF: This brings us to ‘the parallel state’ and how this challenge differs from that posed by the deep state. [Davutoğlu blamed the 2013 government corruption scandal, an ongoing criminal investigation that involves several key people in the Turkish government, most of them members of the AKP, on a "parallel state" formed by supporters of Fethullah Gülen who had come to occupy senior bureaucratic and judicial positions. As Prime Minister he has vowed to dismantle the Gülen movement, led by the former imam and Islamic opinion leader, now living in self-imposed exile in the US. ] Can you say here, that the concern with the dangers of a parallel state have become a bad memory for Turkey, rather than a present preoccupation?

AD: No, the problem has not been completely solved–the Gulen Movement is still trying to spoil things here by interfering in the governing process.

The distinction between the deep state and parallel state is fundamental. A ‘tutelage system’ is the best term for describing the rationale in both instances. In the deep state the bureaucratic elite believed that civilian politicians were likely to make mistakes, that they may not always know what is good for the country, and that therefore there was a need for bureaucratic supervision or tutelage.

The architects of the parallel state that has recently been brought to light also sought to establish a tutelage system, by infiltrating Gulen loyalists into positions of influence in the government bureaucracy. They organized bureaucratic cadres to penetrate the system, educating them, locating them in the police force, the judicial system, with a plan in mind. This quickly becomes a huge problem: the bureaucracy under these conditions is no longer functioning as a professional instrument dedicated to carrying out government policy or as an institution expressing the will of the state as confirmed by the outcome of free elections. Rather the process is one of infiltration into the political system by a non-accountable religious or secular group. The specific character of this group is not important. What became important is that it was a group that pursued its own objectives without any political control.

In the deep state there was a policy domain without political control. In the case of the parallel state, they wanted to control politics as a whole through the bureaucracy. Instead of establishing a political party or going to the people asking for their vote in order to run the country, they tried to exert control over all the basic institutions of the state. And each officer or bureaucrat became loyal to persons outside the authority of the government rather then being loyal to their superiors.

If a police chief takes his orders from such a group, you can be sure that the police and security forces are out of control: if a judge or prosecutor obeys the instructions of someone who is not accountable for the decisions taken, such institutions cannot function properly. This same logic applies to a diplomat or military officer, and throughout the system. Such a group emerged in this country and sought to exert influence.

This is not an issue of corruption. Were it purely a corruption case the government would have acted in a very assertive manner to resolve the situation in accordance with the rule of law. These abusive operating procedures of the parallel state were disclosed in relation to wiretapping. Personal telephone conversations were wiretapped as thousands of leading Turkish businessmen and politicians were subject to arbitrary intrusions on their privacy. And the information was used to exert pressure on individuals, even blackmailing them in some instances, with the goal of controlling the system.

Such behavior undermines Max Weber’s rational bureaucracy. Bureaucrats must be loyal to the state for it to function properly. They should act as individuals. They cannot serve an outside group, and function without accountability. Every bureaucrat must be loyal to the state.

And what about the legitimacy of using state power in a democracy? The legitimacy is established through elections. The leaders derive power from the people and the people will question you about your intentions while in office. You will be accountable for all acts that are undertaken.

We came to understand that this parallel state was especially focused on achieving control of certain branches in every ministry. One of their goals was to control personnel, the human resources department, as a means to control who will get what in government. The second aim was communication or IT technologies. They were getting all the information, including passwords. From time to time they would bring certain documents to the political authorities, to convince them to act against another bureaucrat, to eliminate him or her and to replace him or her with their people.

Within civil society, they focused on education. This was an activity in the public interest. In Turkey and outside Turkey, we gave support to their schools. Then we became aware of less acceptable developments. On February 7 2012, they made a move against our director of intelligence and tried to challenge him in a judicial setting. According to our procedures this official, Hakan Fidan, is solely, directly responsible to the prime minister. This move alerted us to a group agenda antagonistic to ours and to the proper administration of justice in a democratic state. It turned out that our intelligence service was the only institution of government that they had not been able to infiltrate, and so they tried to achieve their ends by other means, by using other parts of government under their control to attack the intelligence bureaucracy. They wanted to insert someone from their group into the top intelligence position.

I think the difference between the deep state and parallel state is clear. The operatives of the deep state think that because they established the state only they can decide in the last analysis what is best regarding the future of that state. The state belongs to them. But the people who shape a parallel want to exert control over the existing state. They seek to control this state through recourse to parallel channels to those relied upon by the traditional bureaucracy. In our first years we fought against this deep state and we said the state doesn’t belong to you or to anybody but the people. The state belongs to the nation. And whoever the nation chooses to lead it, they will govern the country. The basis of any legitimate authority is victory in the elections.

RF: Remarkably, given the heavy schedule you maintained in recent years, I believe you had an opportunity to write about your views on this [in “Philosophical and Institutional Dimensions of Secularization: A Comparative Analysis,” Azzam Tamimi & John L.  Esposito, (ed.), Islam and Secularism in the Middle East, London: Hurst & Company, 2000]?

AD: In it I said that what we didn’t need was a process of secularization similar to what occurred in the west. In the west, for centuries, the epistemological source of secularization was the Pope. And he has no personal responsibility. Whatever he says is infallible. In Sunni Islam theology by contrast, after the Prophet nobody has the authority to claim supreme metaphysical knowledge. In Shia theology, the Imam supposedly possesses metaphysical information and the authority of the Imam was transferred from father to son until the twelfth Imam. Ayatollah Khomeini is this representative on Earth, so you can’t challenge him.

Similarly, in this case, many of his followers believe that Fethullah Gülen is intrinsically incapable of making a mistake, that he possesses total knowledge. Politicians, in contrast, can and do make mistakes. And politics is a terrain that is best understood as rationality. This is democracy.

Who will judge the mistakes of politicians? People. Not the military, but also not a religious group. You will go to the people and they will decide whether you have taken a wrong path or not. If there is a valid judicial case against us we are, of course, accountable. But these judicial cases should be established in fact and should not be used for the political purposes of eliminating a political party or a group of people, simply because of their political views.

So we are accountable and politics should reflect rationality. This is the basic difference between our two belief systems. I think this is the first time I have set forth such a systematic analysis of the underlying tension and it helps explain why we as political leaders cannot live with this parallel state.  

Read on: Here is part 2, part 3 and part 4–and here again is a summary of responses from the Editor in Chief.

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