The resignation of Turkey’s prime minister, announced Thursday, signals a further consolidation of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he seeks to quash political opponents, battle Kurdish separatists, unseat a Syrian dictator and integrate his nation into the European Union.
Erdogan’s government has already taken over critical media outlets, launched corruption investigations against political opponents and promoted a greater role for Islam in the country's long-secular political affairs.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters he will step down May 22 during the party congress of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“I am not considering running at the May 22 congress,” Davutoglu said.
For months, Davutoglu resisted Erdogan’s bid to change Turkey’s political structure to invest more power in the presidency. According to the Turkish constitution, the president’s role is mostly ceremonial, with executive power wielded by the prime minister. Erdogan, who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, wants to change the constitution to make the president the top executive.
Davutoglu has been resisting Erdogan on a number of issues, including the resumption of open warfare with Kurdish separatists, the arrest of academics and relations with the European Union, said Turkey analyst Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution.
"In a very convoluted ambiguous indirect way, he’s questioned the wisdom of the kind of constitution that Erdogan is seeking," Kirisci said. "What Erdogan is trying to do is put someone at the head of the party, someone who is 100% loyal and make sure this constitution is concluded in the parliament and make sure a referendum is held in the fall."
"If Erdogan pulls this off, I think Turkey will become a one-man ruled country," he said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Turkey in recent months has played an important role alongside the United States in its efforts to counter Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, by closing the Turkey-Syria border and allowing U.S. access to Turkish air bases. Though Earnest acknowledged that the two countries have had their differences.
"There's no denying that Turkey has been an important partner," Earnest said.
The U.S. has also pressed Turkey to "make sure their actions uphold the universal democratic values that are enshrined in Turkey's constitution," Earnest said. The Obama administration has raised concerns about freedom of speech and press in Turkey and won't hesitate to do so in the future, he said.
Erdogan's bid for power comes as Davutoglu sought closer ties with the European Union, while Erdogan's relations with Washington have soured.
The European Commission announced Wednesday that it would allow visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens visiting Europe's visa-free Schengen zone starting in July. The agreement — negotiated by Davutoglu, Kirisci said — came in return for Turkey agreeing to take back thousands of migrants who crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece.
The deal, likely to increase tourism and business travel between Turkey and Europe, was a concrete outcome that would have won Davutoglu "important brownie points in this power struggle" with Erdogan, Kirisci said.
In March, U.S. officials criticized Erdogan's government for it's crackdown on the media, and Erdogan has criticized the U.S. for its refusal to support Syrian nationalist and Islamist rebels trying to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Erdogan’s constitutional quest would crown a career that began when he was elected the first Islamist mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. His term ended in 1998, when he was sentenced to prison for inciting religious hatred with a speech that compared the faithful to an army and the minarets of their mosques to bayonets.
As prime minister, Erdogan aligned Turkey’s economy with the European Union and presided over a 272% increase in the country’s economic output. Much of that was achieved by lowering inflation, shrinking sovereign debt and increasing exports by a whopping 325% from 2002 to 2012, according to The Economist.
As president, he has sought to improve economic relations with Europe while railing at Western immorality when it comes to supporting the popular uprising that sparked the Syrian civil war to Turkey’s south. The war has displaced millions of Syrians, including 2.7 million who have registered in Turkey, according to the United Nations.
The Syrian civil war has contributed to a rise in terrorist attacks in Turkey, which has battled since the 1980s against Kurdish separatists who seek an independent state in parts of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. After a period of calm fighting has intensified in late 2015, following a series of bombings attributed to Kurdish separatists and the Islamic State.
The bombings have prompted a big drop in foreign tourism, a major source of income for Turkey.
Contributing: Gregory Korte