ISTANBUL — Domestic pressure on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased on Wednesday with the presentation of a new centre-right party led by a former deputy prime minister who accuses 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 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.
The new party is making an effort to attract female and young voters. Its by-laws say that 35% of party posts have to be filled with women and 20% with young officials. Referring to arrests of social media users for posting comments deemed critical of the government, Babacan said that with his new party in power young people would “be able to post tweets and ‘likes’ without fear”.
Polls say support for the AKP has slumped despite efforts by the government to portray recent military deployments in Syria and Libya as parts of a fight for Turkey’s national interests. Erdogan has teamed up with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to secure the AKP’s grip on parliament, but some polls say the AKP/MHP alliance could drop below the 50% mark needed for a parliamentary majority if elections were held today. The next regular elections are scheduled for 2023.
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.
Babacan hopes to appeal to conservative Muslim voters from the AKP as well as people concerned about the economy. Erdogan has criticised Babacan, warning against dividing the “ummah” — using the Arabic word for the Muslim community.
But Babacan argues that it is Erdogan who has moved away from the founding principles of the AKP. He left the party last year.
“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 that was streamed via the social media accounts of the new party. “But now we have arrived. It is time to take responsibility for Turkey.”
The new party’s programme includes pledges to fight corruption and to strengthen freedom of expression and other basic rights as well as the rule of law and the economy.
The programme also promises to aim for full membership in the EU 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 be able to attract. A survey by the MetroPoll polling firm in January found 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 have faced accusations that they defended and implemented policies under Erdogan that have led to problems that Turkey is grappling with today.
But 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 wrote in an email in response to questions. “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.”
With that kind of support, the two new parties could make it impossible for the AKP and the MHP to reach 51% of the vote to secure its majority, Aydintasbas added.
“Currently, AKP’s vote hovers around 30-something percent and the challenge from Babacan is very real,” she said.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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