Does the new Future Party have a future in Turkey?

Turkey’s former foreign minister and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, launched a new political movement to rival his old comrades at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last week.

At the launch of the Future Party, Davutoğlu directed heavy criticism at the AKP, honing in on its management of the economy over years of poor performance and accusing it of smothering press freedom, practicing nepotism and holding back minority rights.

As the first to launch of the two parties planned by former AKP stalwarts, Davutoğlu’s Future Party has attracted much interest and has naturally raised questions about whether it has the potential to challenge the AKP at the ballot box.

“We’ve formed our party. If we’re going to make the case we can solve problems, we need to be open to dialogue with everyone, both the government and the opposition” Ayhan Sefer Üstün, a former AKP lawmaker who quit the ruling party to join Davutoğlu’s team, told Ahval.

“The country is facing burning issues. The ruling coalition is unable to come up with new ideas to solve these problems. It’s become stuck,” he said. “Our own programme includes both evaluation of these problems, from the economy to the judiciary, and proposals to solve them. We’re going to explain each of these individually to the people of our country.”

For many, the question remains why Davutoğlu, who served as prime minister for the AKP before being forced to resign in 2016 and supported Erdoğan’s bid to switch Turkey’s governmental system to an executive presidency, refrained from criticising the party until this year. Others say self-criticism by the former prime minister is long overdue.

But Üstün said the new movement’s politicians began that process of soul searching in 2015, when opposition within the ruling party grew over its drift away from the long-held drive to join the European Union and what he calls its lack of transparency, as well as the switch from a parliamentary system of government to an executive presidency.

“We engaged in self-criticism for four years before reaching this point. We voiced our concerns within the party, but they didn’t listen to us. We also raised our doubts before the public,” he said. “They’ve ignored our criticism, but we voiced them while we were in government, and now we’re bringing them to the public.”

Another founding member of the Future Party is Nihal Olçok, the widow of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s former advertising and communications chief Erol Olçok. Both her husband and 16-year-old son, Abdullah Tayyip Olçok, were killed when they took to the streets to oppose the 2016 coup attempt.

For Nihal Olçok, the government her husband and son died defending no longer adequately serves the diverse people of Turkey.

“What we need the most is to trust and love one another. The requirements are clear, justice, justice and justice. Without discrimination,” Olçok said.

“You can see when you look at the Future Party’s founding members, there are people from every background: The right wing, the left, Alevis, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Kurds,” she said.

Meanwhile, Davutoğlu’s criticism of the executive presidential system was criticised by some observers as the former prime minister endorsed the new system before the 2017 referendum in which the change was put to the public.

But for Ufuk Uras, a former liberal lawmaker, the creation of new parties is important since it is vital to tackle the country’s drift toward a single-party state system under the AKP.

“I believe the new parties and their advocacy for a strengthened parliamentary democracy against the single-party state are important,” he said, adding that any contribution to the opposition could be crucial since presidential candidates need to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the new system.

Thus, minorities could play a role as kingmakers, he said, adding that he expects them to be well represented in both new parties.

But journalist Berrin Sönmez was less than impressed by the representation of women in the Future Party – just 30 of the party’s 154 founding members are women.

She said the new party had not brought an original political mindset to the table, and instead is rehashing the AKP’s founding principles in the hope it can repeat the party’s success.

“They didn’t choose to make this struggle while they held authority within the AKP. It’s problematic to me that they held their silence rather than voicing their concerns from within the party,” she said.

Though Davutoğlu did eventually come out with fierce criticism of the AKP’s policies, he waited until the party had lost key municipalities in this year’s local elections to do so. Before then, critical voices within the party were few and far between, including during the critical 2017 referendum and the national elections last year.

“It made me think they were waiting in ambush to seize their opportunity. A portion of voters are aware of this too,” Sönmez said.

“Those carrying democracy in Turkey are Kurds and women, and we just don’t see them in Davutoğlu’s party,” she said. “Besides his statements on equal democratic citizenship, which applies to the whole country, he’s got nothing to say about Kurds. Nor is there a thing about women … With such uneven participation from women, and with no policies related to women, I don’t think we can expect much.”

But the party could appeal to members of the AKP’s religious conservative voter base who have become uncomfortable with the recent authoritarian and nationalist turn the ruling party has taken, said Dicle University political scholar Vahap Coşkun.

“I think it will have an impact. Davutoğlu is generally influential with the religious conservative demographic, his voice resonates more with them,” he said.

As Sönmez suggested, though, Coşkun believes this will be offset by the distaste of Kurdish voters for a politician who led the country as prime minister in 2015 and 2016 during a heavy-handed military response to insurgents seeking Kurdish autonomy that left several districts in Turkey’s southeast in ruins.

This could well leave the new party well short of support, according to Rojesir Girasun, the manager of the Rawest Research Company, based in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, since the disillusioned voters it is aiming to prise away from the AKP are mostly Kurds.

Besides those voters, Davutoğlu will have a hard time attracting the religious conservative demographic unless he can present his party as having the potential to replace the ruling party.

“Otherwise conservatives will be afraid of splitting their vote and they’ll again give it to the (ruling) People’s Alliance,” he said.

Abdülhakim Taş, whose East and Southeast Associations Platform represents a range of civil society organisations from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish regions, agrees that Davutoğlu has little chance of winning the Kurdish vote.

This will likely leave Davutoğlu with between 1 percent and 3 percent of the vote, said Taş, “but even that amount is important, because even with all of its advantages the government only won the presidency by a whisker.” Erdoğan won the 2018 presidential election in the first round of voting with more than 52 percent of the vote.

A second party of AKP renegades is due to by launched shortly by former deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan. Journalist and sociologist İslam Özkan believes that while Babacan’s party has snapped up the most popular figures leaving the ruling party, Davutoğlu still has the chance to have success on an organisational level.

“His relationship with Islamic congregations is better (than Babacan’s). So, if he’s able to benefit on the lower organisational levels from these communities’ energy, this could secure him organisational opportunities and conversion without the need for much funding,” Özkan said.

Davutoğlu, as a leading figure from the AKP’s recent past, has a deep knowledge of the government’s actions, and Özkan believes this will bring both advantages and disadvantages to his campaign.

“It appears that the AKP’s problems with corruption will deepen in the near future, and they’ll be investing their energies in this,” he said. “Davutoğlu is of course most qualified to speak on the subject, as he served as prime minister. I think he knows about what has happened in the AKP. But on the other hand, he can’t really speak on the subject since he didn’t do what the law required when corruption took place.”

Davutoğlu must take his share of the blame for the switch to the executive presidency and de facto one-man rule, according to Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, a former AKP parliamentarian.

“Everything he (Davutoğlu) is criticising today came about because of the one-man regime. The loss of the separation of powers, the power to appoint university rectors handed to the president, the loss of judicial independence,” said Ünsal. “He supported all of these. Davutoğlu needs to partake in self-criticism for his role in this regime.”


© Ahval English

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