Turkish voters welcome creation of new party by ‘honest’ former AKP heavyweight

The new political movement being prepared by the ruling party’s former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, with rumoured input from former president Abdullah Gül, has captured the agenda not only in Turkey’s halls of power, but also for ordinary citizens.

Babacan’s performance as deputy prime minister for the economy helped the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to an impressive economic record before he was sidelined in 2015. His plans to form a new political movement, which is expected in September, has earned Babacan and his comrades condemnation as “traitors” from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan shrugged off suggestions that Babacan could capture a share of his party’s vote. But the former AKP heavyweight is still remembered fondly by many Turks as a rare figure in politics: “a clean and honest person”. 

This was the response that we received from almost every person we asked about Babacan on the streets of Istanbul. But the other responses from citizens who said they would never support Babacan, showed that Erdoğan’s accusations have had an impact.

Nevertheless, many Turkish like Mehmet Şeker have drifted away from the AKP and are welcoming the new political movement. 

“I’d vote for Ali Babacan … The AK Party is getting weaker, and we need to find something to take its place. Babacan’s a very honest man, I’d like very much for him to lead”, Şeker said.

Sakıp Beyaztürk is another former AKP voter who agrees that there is a need for a new political party, and sees the “honest person and politician” Babacan as a fine leader worthy of votes.

The former AKP deputy prime minister still has many detractors on the streets of Turkey. A weak performance in this year’s local elections is thought by many to have spurred the moves by Babacan and another AKP stalwart, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, to create new political movements. Yet Erdoğan still commands the personal support of a huge number of Turks, so his accusations that the former AKP politicians had “backstabbed him” and sought to “divide the faithful” did not fall on deaf ears.

Thus AKP voter Mustafa Fındık could not respond to the question about Babacan without a stream of invective. “I don’t recognise Ali Babacan and I don’t wish to. God damn them all”, Fındık said.

More widespread, however, was the criticism that Babacan was too closely associated with the ruling party. The former deputy prime minister has said his party will be economically liberal and pro-Western. This is a marked change from the recent foreign policy of the AKP, which has come into a series of conflicts with its Western allies over issues ranging from the purchase of Russian missile defence systems to energy drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Voters like Mesut Sıktaş, however, will not easily forgive Babacan and other AKP renegades for their association with the ruling party, and feel their movement could become a bad imitation of the AKP.

“I wouldn’t vote for Babacan, he worked together with them … Now that things are going badly, they’re forming a new party … Ali Babacan walked the same road (as the AKP). It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other”, said Sıktaş.

Voters for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) tend to support the formation of the new party for tactical reasons.

“It’s a good thing for Babacan to form a new party, as it is for the number of parties to increase; it will shake the current government a little. It already has been showing signs of strain. I think it will be a success if it can take a share of the AKP’s voter base. At the first phase, I guess it will get between 15 percent and 20 percent, then it will settle”, said CHP voter İsmail Türkdoğan.

In that sense, Türkdoğan said, the new party could follow the example set by the nationalist opposition Good Party, which was founded by renegades from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who objected to that party’s support for the AKP.

Nationalist voter Mahmut Karademir sees Babacan’s new formation as a positive step for Turkey, even though he voted for the AKP’s candidate in the local elections.

“We need a change. In the last elections, I voted for (AKP Istanbul mayoral candidate) Binali Yıldırım … But now, if Ali Babacan forms a party, I’d vote for it, because these are people we know who have worked for the party”, Karademir said.

Others, like Uğur Güçlü, are waiting to see how Babacan presents his party and its policies before passing judgement.

“Let him explain what he’s going to do and how, first. Let him explain himself openly. I won’t vote for him just because he’s Ali Babacan, I want to see his programme”, said Güçlü.

“I need to know his policies and his ideology. It’s not important for me if he’s old AK Party or new AK Party, if they’re going to do good things for the country we’ll vote for him, but if they’re just the same as the current party, there’s no need”, he said.

The moves to make new parties come after a rocky period in Turkish politics that has seen the country go through a currency crisis and recession in 2018, forcing citizens to queue up in many cities to buy discounted fruit at vegetables at government stands as inflation made staple goods unaffordable.

The economic troubles contributed to the AKP’s weak performance at the local elections, in which the party lost mayoral contests in five of Turkey’s six largest provinces, including Istanbul and Ankara. A new party could thus benefit from the disaffection with the ruling party, particularly if it appeals to the conservative sections that make up the AKP’s voter base.

Yet for some like Semih Demir, the formation of the party is coming too late for Turkey. A constitutional referendum to switch from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system in 2017 and national elections in 2018 have cemented Erdoğan’s hold over Turkey, granting the president unmatched authority over the state.

“Is it just now that the idea of forming a new party came to Mr. Babacan’s mind”, Demir said.

“He hasn’t done anything up to now. He should have formed (the party) sooner. In any case, I won’t vote for him, since his party won’t represent my political views”, he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.