Turkey’s AKP faces looming threat from splinter parties

The political parties expected to be launched soon by renegades from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seem all the more relevant in the wake of the AKP's string of surprising defeats in this year’s local elections, including in the capital Ankara and the country’s biggest city and financial centre, Istanbul.

Ali Babacan, an AKP co-founder and former deputy prime minister who is widely credited for the economic successes in the AKP’s early years in power, is said to be laying the groundwork for a new outfit with former president Abdullah Gül.

Resigning from the party last month, Babacan said in a statement that differences of values and principles made it impossible for him to remain in the party. He said Turkey needed a new vision devised in consultation with different groups.

Previously, Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister, publicly criticised President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a diatribe posted on Facebook after the party’s poor performance in the March 31 local elections. Last week, Davutoğlu said he would continue to voice his concerns but remain a member of the party, adding that leaving was a last resort. 

Birikim magazine editor-in-chief Ömer Laçiner, a prominent leftist intellectual, told Ahval that the AKP had reached the end of the line and efforts to establish breakaway parties had intensified largely due to concerns that the party would soon damage the credibility of Turkey’s Islamist-conservative tradition.

Some within the AKP argue that the party should return to its early policies advocating democratic reform and the rule of law. They blame the president’s inner circle, rather than Erdoğan himself, for the shift. 

The problem, Laçiner believes, is that critics within the party have lost all credibility. “Even if the AKP and Erdoğan say that they have detected their mistakes and shortcomings and take steps to reverse them, they can do nothing but walk toward their inevitable end,” he said.

The AKP itself is a breakaway party, created in 2001 after a group led by Erdoğan, Gül, and Bülent Arınç cut ties with former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to follow a more moderate form of Islamism. 18 years later, former Prime Minister Erdoğan says Babacan is dividing Turkey’s Islamists by leaving the AKP. 

The AKP’s success came by expanding its voter base to attract people who had previously supported centre-right parties. But Turkey is now deeply polarised and the electorate has evolved over time so there may not be an easy way back.

According to Islamist author, columnist and theologian İhsan Eliaçık, Turkey has traditionally been home to three main groups of conservatives: nationalist conservatives led by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); religious conservatives represented by parties of the Erbakan tradition; and central conservatives who voted for parties that dominated the second half of the 20th century in Turkey. Eliaçık said the AKP had for years united all three, but now that had begun to change. 

Two cleavages are emerging, including one between conservatives who have limited contact with other social groups and those who are more cosmopolitan, according to Burak Bilgehan Özpek, assistant professor of international relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.

“The other axis divides the conservatives who need public resources and therefore the discretionary distribution of those resources by the political authority in order to stay alive and increase their wealth, and those who do not need that and can stay alive by their own labour and skills,” said Özpek. 

He also said AKP supporters who do not depend on the party’s patronage have begun shifting their preferences. “Conservatives who did not vote for the AKP also declared they differentiate between the ability to govern and their identities. This was both a secular attitude and an objection to the political interpretation of Islam,” he said. 

A new political party led by Babacan could provide a technocratic alternative for such conservatives. “Among conservatives there are many who think that rhetoric that pleases the hearts is no use for a competent administration and that in fact it paralyses it,” Özpek said.

A Babacan-led party will also have an aura of economic success around it, an appealing notion as Turkish voters face continued high unemployment and troubling inflation.  

“The problem for Erdoğan is that Babacan has been at the steering wheel of the Turkish economy during the successful years of the AKP,” Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, scholar in residence at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Fatih Ceran, PhD student on contemporary Turkish politics at the University of Strasbourg, wrote for Open Democracy this week. 

“If the economy is now Erdoğan’s Achilles’ heel, the Babacan-Gül duo will be shooting right at it,” they said, adding that Babacan “will emerge as a potential saviour should the economic situation deteriorate further.”

Ferhat Kentel, sociology professor at Istanbul Şehir University, said Erdoğan would likely try to block criticism within his own party in an effort to keep others from departing. 

“There are lots of signs that indicate that the legend of Erdoğan’s invincibility has ended and the balloon is about to burst,” he said. “I think the success or failure of steps taken by people and groups who left the AKP will determine the fate of calls for change inside the party.”

Experts say that while the March losses were a blow to the AKP, defeat in the June 23 Istanbul rerun, in which opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu increased his margin of victory from about 14,000 votes to 800,000, really hurt. Kentel said the latter result revealed the split between AKP voters.

Babacan will target conservative voters shifting from the AKP, according to Eliaçık, while İmamoğlu, who won as a moderate of the main secularist party, also appeals to the same group.

Özpek said Selahattin Demirtaş, the charismatic jailed former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), should not be left out of the equation, as he, İmamoğlu, and Babacan all emphasise the rule of law and the importance of institutions, along with sound economic policy. 

Erdoğan has built his political career on his rhetorical abilities and by positioning himself in opposition to others, Özpek added, and will likely try to retain power by blending nationalism with Islamism and focusing on security-centred policies. 

“For that to succeed, Turkey needs to continuously face extraordinary situations that require national unity. The nationalism that is justified and strengthened over disputes in foreign policy, will keep on fusing with conservatism supported by public resources,” Özpek said. 

© Ahval English