Babacan, former Erdogan aide, pitches new party as way out of Turkey’s ‘politics of fear’

Babacan is the second former member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to create a new political group to challenge his former boss.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Ali Babacan attends in Ankara the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed in Syria, March 1. (AP)
Political ‘cure’. Ali Babacan attends in Ankara the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed in Syria, March 1. (AP)

ISTANBUL -Domestic pressure on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased with the presentation of a new centre-right party led by a former deputy prime minister who accused the government of conducting “politics of fear.”

Ali Babacan, 52, a former Erdogan aide who left the government in 2015, said in a speech in Ankara that his new Party for Democracy and Progress would fight for more freedom of expression, a better education system and an end to Erdogan’s presidential system of government. “Deva,” the Turkish abbreviation of the party name, is also the Turkish word for “remedy.”

“We are the remedy,” Babacan said.

Critics say Erdogan has steadily eroded civil rights during his 17-year rule and worry about the sweeping powers given to the presidency after a constitutional reform.

Babacan is the second former member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to create a new political group to challenge his former boss. Last year, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu founded the conservative Future Party. Both Babacan and Davutoglu have won over AKP dissidents and hope to attract disgruntled Erdogan voters frustrated with the president’s increasingly autocratic style, Turkey’s difficult economic situation and reports of government corruption.

Can Selcuki, general manager of polling firm Istanbul Economic Research, said Babacan and Davutoglu could benefit from a new situation in Turkish politics as a drop in the AKP’s popularity meant that the dominance by Erdogan’s party over the political right had ended.

“For the first time in 18 years, there is room for a new political party,” Selcuki said by phone.

Babacan’s party is trying to attract female and young voters. Its by-laws say that at least 35% of party posts must be filled with women and 20% with young officials.

Polls suggest support for the AKP has slumped despite efforts by the government to portray military deployments in Syria and Libya as parts of a fight for Turkey’s national interests. Erdogan has teamed with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to secure the AKP’s grip on parliament but some polls indicate the AKP/MHP alliance, if elections were now, could drop below the 50% mark needed for a parliamentary majority. The next regular elections are scheduled for 2023.

Selcuki compared the situation of disgruntled AKP voters with dust rising from a cushion that has been shaken. “This dust is now floating in the air,” he said. “If the right wind comes, it can carry the dust to a new destination but, if that doesn’t happen, the dust will settle back on the cushion again.”

“Our polling in December 2019 showed that Babacan’s and Davutoglu’s parties have a combined potential of 17.2%,” Selcuki said, adding that the “definition of success” in Turkish politics had changed.

“You don’t need 34% of the vote that the AKP received in 2002” and that propelled the party to power, he said. “Today, it matters if you even get 4 percentage points from the AKP because that equals an 8 [point] swing away from the government bloc and towards the opposition.” A swing like that would deprive Erdogan of a majority in parliament.

Under the presidential system, parliament has lost some of its rights but an assembly dominated by Erdogan’s foes could make life difficult for the president by rejecting legislation and by launching investigations. It could even call for early elections.

“We all are tired of the politics of fear, of polemics and confrontation,” Babacan said in his speech at a meeting of Deva party members and supporters in Ankara, “but now we have arrived. It is time to take responsibility for Turkey.”

The new party’s programme includes pledges to fight corruption and strengthen freedom of expression and other basic rights as well as the rule of law and the economy. The programme also promises to shoot for full membership in the European Union and takes aim at Erdogan’s combative foreign policy.

The Deva party calls for cooperation with Syria against “terrorist threats” and underlines that a “constructive and realistic dialogue with all sides” was best-suited to secure a political solution to the crisis serving Turkey’s interests.

Referring to tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Erdogan wants to stop Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt from exploiting natural gas fields, the party programme says that the region should not be “an area for differences and conflict but of cooperation and stability.”

The jury is out on how many voters Babacan’s and Davutoglu’s parties will attract. A survey by the MetroPoll polling firm in January stated that Davutoglu’s Future Party stood at 1.2% support and Babacan’s formation, which had not been founded at the time of the poll, at 0.8%. Both politicians faced accusations that they defended and implemented policies under Erdogan that have led to problems that Turkey is grappling with today.

However, Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the creation of Babacan’s party was significant all the same.

“Babacan’s new party is going to pose a real challenge to AKP,” Aydintasbas said via e-mail. “It is not going to sweep up the conservative vote in Turkey but could gain 5-6% and together with Davutoglu’s new party up to 10% in a coalition arrangement.”

"Currently, AKP’s vote hovers around 30-something percent and the challenge from Babacan is very real,” she said.