At last, after months of preparation and despite the slur campaigns and stream of misinformation by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s army of internet trolls, Ali Babacan formally announced the launch of a new centre right party to rival the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). An AKP cofounder now labelled a “traitor” in the Turkish president’s official lexicon, Babacan had served as the economy minister who steered the Turkish economic recovery in the early 2000s, and then as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. He had clearly given careful thought to the name of his new political organisation: the Democracy and Progress Party. Its Turkish acronym, DEVA, means “cure”.
Turkey is headed in a direction contrary to what we all want, Babacan has said. That puts mildly the erosion of rights and freedoms in the country that once boasted itself as a regional model of democracy, mounting corruption spearheaded by flagrant nepotism and cronyism at the top, and the sharp economic turndown that weighs especially hard on the Turkish working classes.
By pure coincidence, the DEVA party was launched on the same day that the US State Department released a damning report on Turkey’s human rights record. The report implicates Turkish authorities in “arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including former opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens and employees of the US Mission.” It also noted “significant problems with judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and unjustified arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticising government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking and the existence of criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association and movement; some cases of refoulement of refugees; and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons and members of other minorities.”
It was no coincidence that Babacan chose to launch the “antidote” in a press conference held at the Bilkent Hotel on the outskirts of Ankara, the same hotel where Erdogan launched the AKP nearly two decades ago. In the backdrop we see a huge Turkish flag and an equally large photo of the founder of the modern secularist Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The symbolism is meant to drive home the point that led Babacan to resign from the AKP to begin with, last summer: the ruling party under Erdogan’s leadership had deviated from its founding values and this paved the way for country’s current social and economic plight. A return to “Democracy and Progress” was in order.
Shortly before the launch of DEVA, Babacan announced a list of 90 founding members. Among them are many former ministers and lawmakers who had also resigned from the AKP. Others are new faces in Turkish politics. All share a desire to lead their country away from the regime’s Muslim Brotherhood brand of Islamist demagoguery and polarisation, fear and violence, repression and discrimination, and back to intellectual, cultural and political diversity. The new party “will not turn our religious sanctities into a political tool,” he said at the launch. “We will not allow religion to be used as a means of political propaganda.”
Will DEVA be able to shake Erdogan’s throne? Babacan has certainly thrown down the gauntlet. “The people are worried about their future,” he said. “The people of this country have been saddened and hurt over the past few years. Everything was taken away from them, but they showed patience.” He blamed the situation on a small circle of people that, as he put it in a recent interview with The Financial Times, was running the country “like an island state”. “We believe that those who don’t practise democracy and participation within their parties can’t contribute to our country’s democracy and future,” he said at the launch. He vowed a return to inclusive and pluralistic government. “Politics is an art of forming a consensus. We are against using an exclusionary language in politics,” he said, pointedly.
Babacan and his new party support a return to the parliamentary system. The “presidential system” that was introduced after a highly controversial referendum in 2017 enabled Erdogan to acquire sweeping executive powers that crushed judicial and legislative autonomy. Babacan promised a return to effective democratic checks and balances.
According to the Turkish political analyst Cevat Gök, Erdogan is more afraid of Babacan than Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu who roundly defeated Erdogan’s prime minister, Benali Yildirim, in the municipal elections last summer. Babacan, as a former AKP heavyweight, threatens Erdogan in his own base, especially in light of his strong economic background.
Babacan also champions a return to the foreign policy principles from which the Erdogan regime deviated, most notably the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of Turkey’s neighbours. His promise to return to Ataturk’s famous maxim “Peace at home, Peace in the world” will draw considerable support, including from among many in Erdogan’s original base. People have grown weary of polarisation at home and war abroad, of the belligerent foreign policies that have dragged their country into futile military adventures with disastrous domestic social and economic repercussions.
According to opposition newspapers, around a million AKP members left the ruling party during the past year alone.
Babacan’s party is the second party formed by breakaway AKP leaders within only a few months. Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu launched his new Future Party in December.
With high-profile defections in the ranks, and major slides in the polls, as evidenced in the municipal elections in which the ruling AKP lost all the major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, perhaps the end of the Sultan Erdogan era is at hand.
Babacan was reflecting a very broad spectrum of opinion when he said, “it’s impossible for Turkey to keep going with an understanding of politics that can’t renew itself. It’s time for renewal… The time to heal has come for Turkey. If you’re looking for a partner in times of need, we’re the cure. If you’re looking for a quick solution, we’re the cure. The time for DEVA has come.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly