ISTANBUL — Turkey’s prime minister stepped down Thursday, possibly paving the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate power amid complaints from opponents over his increasingly hard-line policies.
The decision by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to bow out of upcoming elections marks another potential step by Erdogan to move Turkey toward a presidential system and reduce the powers of parliament — further cementing the president’s authority and probably stirring more outrage from rights groups and other critics.
Erdogan has taken an increasingly hard line against perceived opponents, including prosecuting journalists and others for “insulting” him.
Davutoglu reportedly was less enthusiastic about the push toward a stronger executive, putting him more at odds with Erdogan.
“I decided to step down from my post,” Davutoglu said after meeting with leaders from the Justice and Development Party (AKP),which has governed Turkey since 2002. “I am not planning to become a candidate in the upcoming [party] elections.”
The party congress to replace Davutoglu, who became prime minister in 2014, will be held May 22, local media reported.
In addition to the latest political turmoil, Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, faces multiple crises, including a raging Kurdish insurgency, attacks from Islamic State militants and negotiations with the European Union over how to handle migration flows over the Aegean Sea. Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the war against the Islamic State.
Davutoglu, a former professor and foreign minister, led discussions with European Union leaders to secure a deal under which migrants would be returned to Turkey in exchange for aid and visa-free travel for Turks in Europe. The Obama administration, too, saw Davutoglu as more of a collaborative realist than the prickly Erdogan.
But Davutoglu’s relationship with Erdogan, who founded the AKP, had grown increasingly strained. The two disagreed over many issues, such as economic policy and pretrial detention for dissidents.
In a surprise move last week, the AKP stripped Davutoglu of his power to appoint provincial-level party officials. In a news conference Thursday, he cited the blow as a key reason for his resignation, saying it was “not behavior I would expect from fellow colleagues.”
Davutoglu said he will remain loyal to Erdogan and stay in the AKP as a deputy.
“You will not hear one negative word from me about our president,” Davutoglu said, warning against “speculation” over deepening rifts.
But others saw the his resignation Thursday as an ominous sign of the direction of Turkish politics. In addition to sidelining Davutoglu, Erdogan has also spearheaded an initiative to strip members of parliament of their legal immunity.
He has called for lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to be prosecuted for alleged support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),a militant group that has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades. The conflict reignited last summer after peace talks broke down.
The HDP on Thursday warned that targeting parliamentarians would jeopardize efforts to resolve the current conflict with the Kurds, who make up 15 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population.
“Never before in this system has one person amassed so much power in his hands as Erdogan has,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, after Davutoglu’s resignation.
Not only will Erdogan now pick a more compliant figure as head of the AKP, “but the risk that looms for Turkey here is the hollowing out of all institutions,” he said.
If the president continues to consolidate power, Cagaptay say, it will “render the country so brittle politically that when Erdogan leaves office one day, there will be nearly no institutions left standing to keep the country together.”
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.