Can old foes help Erdogan counter new rivals?
Two long-awaited political parties led by former heavyweights of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party are expected to be formed soon and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded in a typically aggressive fashion, calling his former allies “traitors.”
As new movements take shape around former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister who steered the economy to its greatest successes in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) era, two old political hands apparently see an opening for their return.
The first is Rifat Serdaroglu, who served as health minister and state minister in the 1990s and reportedly plans to turn the conservative Shepherd’s Fire Movement he co-founded this year into a political party by October.
The party is expected to take a centre-right line while being open to centre-left and social democratic politicians and having a strong contingent of young people and women in positions of influence.
Shepherd’s Fire is based in Izmir and the Aegean region, which are, for the most part, strongholds of Turkey’s secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Unsurprisingly, talk of a new party that could alter the playing field in regions the CHP has long taken for granted has ruffled feathers. This is likely to be reflected in the party congress in February.
However, the most striking development on the new party front is from the Young Party, which is led by the controversial and influential businessman and politician Cem Uzan.
Uzan was an early opponent of the AKP, pitting his party against it in the 2002 and 2007 elections and using his platform, which included popular newspaper and television outlets owned by the Uzan Group, to promote his opposition to the AKP.
In 2004, those media outlets, as well as the banks, manufacturing plants, technology and energy companies owned by Uzan, were seized by Turkey’s Savings Insurance Deposit Fund (TMSF) at the behest of Erdogan, then prime minister.
For decades, Uzan’s holdings faced allegations of corruption and other criminal activity in various countries. The value of the properties seized, by the businessman’s count, was $13 billion. He, his father and his brother were targeted by prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, initial lead prosecutor in the Ergenekon trial, for membership in a terrorist organisation.
The Uzan family sought asylum in France, leaving behind a judicial landscape marred by trials of political opponents of the ruling party. Oz and other lawyers were themselves later targeted for alleged links to the Gulen Movement, which went from being an Erdogan ally to his arch-nemesis. His government has subjected the movement to a far-reaching purge after blaming it for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Most of those targeted by Oz and his colleagues have been exonerated since the Gulen Movement and AKP conflict broke out but Uzan, sentenced in absentia to 23 years in prison in 2013, is pursuing the legal breakthrough that would allow him to return to Turkey.
Talk has been rife in Turkey’s political circles that such a breakthrough could be in the cards. Uzan has won a series of court cases against the TMSF in international arbitration and trade courts. French courts have ruled three times in Uzan’s favour in the past year, ordering the TMSF to pay $3 billion, $2 billion and $416 million in the three decisions.
Uzan’s children have made a successful application to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that their wealth was unlawfully seized. The TMSF and Turkish Treasury have appealed the decision and are awaiting a final ruling from the court.
As for the Young Party, Uzan’s riches allowed him to put on crowd-pleasing rallies in 2002, complete with guest stars performing and free food. This, together with the tough campaign fought through his media outlets against the AKP and Erdogan, allowed the party to amass 7.5% in the elections that year — a very respectable amount but not enough to gain any seats in parliament because of Turkey’s 10% electoral threshold.
The party did not fare well in the legislative elections in 2007 and has sat out each election since but Uzan has made sure to keep the party running, having provincial and district congresses and other activities necessary to allow it to participate in elections.
The Young Party’s success in 2002 was partly down to its nationalist line, which allowed it to attract enough voters from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party’s voter base to deprive that party of a place in parliament.
The Nationalist Movement Party is part of the ruling coalition and tied firmly to the AKP. Nevertheless, Erdogan has reportedly been involved in negotiations with Uzan that could make his return a reality.
With Uzan saying the previous cases against him were plotted by the Gulen Movement and the series of rulings over billions of dollars going in his favour, word going around the halls of power is that Erdogan could change tack on his old adversary.
By some accounts, Uzan and his family have been assured they will not be arrested if they return to Turkey, as long as they return their foreign wealth to the country and forgo a part of the compensation they are due from their successful lawsuits.
As for Uzan’s return to politics, Erdogan is reportedly hoping the Young Party could be used to siphon votes this time from the opposition nationalist Iyi Party and the two new parties being formed by AKP renegades.
With his history in politics and business and the untold financial resources he could bring into play it would be no surprise to see Uzan quickly return to the scene as an influential political actor. The price for that return could be to play “opposition to the opposition” for Erdogan.