The resignation of the co-founder of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, Ali Babacan, sent shockwaves throughout the country.
In a statement July 8 declaring his resignation from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Babacan declared: “In recent years, deep differences have emerged over the principles, values and opinions in which I believe and the implementations [of the AKP] in separate areas. The current situation necessitated a brand-new vision of the future in Turkey because we have new, dynamic and promising generations that have completely different demands.”
He said he and others believe the problems facing Turkey can only be resolved by involving a wide and varied group of individuals.
With the statement seen as an indication of his plans to establish a rival political party, it clearly raises the question: Is Babacan the man to take on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
Unlike other high-profile leaders — former President Abdullah Gul and ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in 2007 and 2016, respectively, for example — who over the years left the AKP quietly, Babacan used his resignation as a platform from which to speak directly to Turks in a way few high-level insiders have done.
His comments are bold, given the level of repression in Turkey and punishment meted out to those challenging Erdogan’s authority, and instructive in terms of what Babacan plans to do next.
The timing of Babacan’s announcement is not accidental, coming just weeks after the AKP’s loss of the Istanbul mayoral seat and two days after the country’s central bank governor, ostensibly a non-political position, was fired by presidential decree.
Babacan commands much respect in Turkey as the architect of the economic and financial restructuring that pulled Turkey from a deep inflation crisis in the early 2000s. Appointed as minister for economic affairs in 2002 at just 35 years of age, Babacan is regarded as a respected, capable and shrewd reader of Turkey’s political landscape.
He helped turn the country into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world during the decade that followed.
It was this unprecedented degree of economic comfort and access to loans, combined with the AKP’s conservative ideology and Erdogan’s reputation as an uncompromising leader on the world stage, that created such widespread support for the party among Turks during the 2000s.
And it is from this standpoint that Babacan may look to reach Turks via a new political party — as the man who made the economy better.
Erdogan aside, the main players behind the original AKP movement are gone. Add in a recession, the central bank governor’s dismissal and the embarrassing loss of the mayoralty of Istanbul and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the difficulties facing the AKP are mounting.
Were Gul and Davutoglu, who reports indicate may choose to go it alone and establish his own political organisation, to get behind Babacan and form a new party together, dozens of other AKP members disillusioned with Erdogan’s amassment of power could jump ship with them.
To be sure, even if a new splinter party of former AKP cadres were set up, it wouldn’t necessarily immediately mean the end of the AKP. Forming new parties in Turkey is something of a national sport. Prominent political movements, such as the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Democratic Party, founded in 2012, and the nationalist Iyi Party, established less than two years ago, added to the political mix have not proved fatal for the AKP.
Erdogan, of course, has faced down challengers before and come out on top. The 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests, while impressive at the time, soon bled out.
A failed coup attempt in July 2015 was crushed within hours and fuelled Erdogan’s push for control. At that time, Babacan’s portfolio was reduced sharply amid speculation of him having ties to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for the attempted takeover.
And yet, the challenges to Erdogan are beginning to pile up. Some he can shrug off, others, such as the economic hardship squeezing many of Turkey’s 80 million residents, are much more complex.
The reason the AKP achieved so much for so long was that it brought together Turkey’s best minds and leaders. Today, it has but one: Erdogan. He is surrounded by sycophants with little experience or knowledge of running a country. They seem to believe their only duty is to act on the whim of their president’s every wish and command.
There is much testing of the waters for Babacan, Davutoglu and other AKP renegades to do before they mount a serious threat to the ruling party but the ingredients appear to be in place. Be sure, however, Erdogan knows that, too.
Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).
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