Ali Babacan strikes out on his own path in Turkey

Ali Babacan, a former minister who oversaw Turkey’s economy for several years, resigned his membership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) this week over “deep differences” with the party’s direction. Along with myself, he was one of 72 co-founders of the party. 

In the early stages of AKP rule from 2002, Babacan served as minister of state in charge of the economy, then as foreign minister and chief negotiator with the European Union, and then as deputy prime minister. 

He used to disagree with then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on several issues linked to the management of the economy. One of them, low interest rates, or no interest at all, was a question of principle for Erdoğan, partly due to the ban on interest in Islam. Its origin goes back to an incident more than 14 centuries ago, when the prophet Mohammed opposed moneylenders exploiting the poor people of Medina.

With his bright educational background and very successful performance as a minister, Babacan preferred to manage the economy according to its rules rather than religious precepts. 

Babacan’s resignation, coincidentally, came two days after Erdoğan sacked the governor of central bank over disagreements on the interest rates issue.  

Babacan played an undeniably important role in the AKP’s economic performance in the early years and gained the appreciation and confidence of the international financial community.

Rumours about Babacan’s intention to form a new political party have been running for months, but he refrained from announcing it before the March 31 local elections, probably to avoid criticism that he was aiming to affect the results of the polls. 

Now that Turkey is entering a different political era after the AKP’s electoral defeat in major cities including Istanbul, Babacan politely asked for an appointment with Erdoğan and tendered his resignation in complete conformance with the rules and manners of politics. He thus gave a good example of leaving a political party without recrimination and accusations played out in the media. 

What Babacan told the president was that he was leaving the AKP, without confirming that he was going to establish a new party. Babacan is known to have the full support of the former president, Abdullah Gül, who seems to be reluctant to get involved in the disputes of daily politics after having served at the top. 

Like any politician, Babacan may face difficulties, because by definition, politics is full of unknowns. However, he has been a politician to whom no wrongdoing could be attributed.

Last month’s defeat in the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election was a critical point in the AKP’s political life. Babacan’s resignation may be another. As the business community both in Turkey and abroad continues to worry about the fragility of Turkey’s economy, many domestic and foreign actors interested in Turkey may support him. This may change several paradigms. 

Another important political figure, former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has already declared his intention to establish a political party. These two former close associates of Erdoğan address different audiences in Turkey. Babacan meets the expectation of those who want to see Turkey’s economy back on track and managed according to the rules of the game. 

The potential supporters of Davutoğlu are those who dream of a strong Turkey assuming the leadership of the Islamic world, which they view as being in disarray. Many in Turkey believe Davutoğlu is responsible for the series of mistakes in almost every chapter of the Middle East crisis and elsewhere. But he has avoided a mea culpa by putting the blame on Erdoğan and claiming he only did what his boss Erdoğan told him to do. 

Babacan and Davutoğlu are therefore unlikely to steal each other’s votes, but the more the opposition is fragmented, the less the chance there is for them to overcome the 10-percent electoral threshold required to be represented in parliament.