Turkey’s Ali Babacan to offer a detailed reform strategy in his new party programme

Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister and the man credited with steering Turkey out of an economic crisis, is poised to announce a new party to rival President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has led the country since 2002.

Babacan’s centre-right liberal party will add to the array of opposition groups ranged against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which grew out of Turkey’s Islamist movement, promising an end to the corruption of the past. But critics say the party now oversees a network of patronage to shore up power they say has become increasingly concentrated in one man.

Like Babacan, Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister, also left the AKP this year and this month established his conservative Future Party. Babacan is expected to submit an application to establish his new party in the second half of January following months of preparation. His initiative has attracted many people, including former mayors, former lawmakers and businessmen.

A former AKP member of parliament who is backing Babacan said the new party leader prioritised democracy and the rule of law and had been making consultations with people from every walk of life to listen to their problems and design policies that would address the issues of the country.

Babacan has also set up 24 commissions to work on policies to tackle issues including the legal system, the economy, culture, women and the environment. 

Babacan envisions a party built on competence and productivity, according to the former lawmaker. He particularly focuses on young people who suffer most from unemployment and problems in the education system. In Babacan’s party young people will take the stage as representatives of a new generation in politics, the former parliamentarian said. 

Another politician working with Babacan said the party programme would not just focus on the short term, but would present a vision for the next 40 to 50 years. 

The politician said people that around Babacan were wary of Kanal Istanbul, an artificial waterway project built through Istanbul to circumvent the Bosporus. Erdoğan revived discussions on Kanal Istanbul this month, saying construction would begin soon and sparking a row with the opposition mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu. Residents of the city have been waiting in long queues for the last three days to use their chance to lodge appeals against the project.

“This is a project of polarisation,” Babacan said in an interview with the T24 news website on Thursday. “There is a need to change the agenda, because the real agenda is unemployment. This project should be discussed with participatory democracy. We do not need a canal project, we need investment for industry and technology,” he said. 

But according to a veteran politician who follows Babacan closely, the former deputy prime minister will take a different approach to Davutoğlu and will avoid direct attacks on Erdoğan as much as possible. 

Babacan was credited for the AKP’s economic success during its first decade in power and earned the respect of many both in Turkey and abroad. The politician aims to target reforming the economy by bringing together the most qualified people as evident in his efforts to ensure the support of prominent economists like the U.S.-based Armenian academic from Turkey, Daron Acemoğlu. 

People involved in Babacan’s initiative said the terrorism charges against philanthropist Osman Kavala, in jail for more than two years, were absurd. Kavala is accused of masterminding the 2013 Gezi protests, the biggest anti-government protests since the AKP came to power. But the new party has yet to form a stance on what is known as the Gezi trial, in which prosecutors have demanded a total of 47,520 years in prison for 16 suspects, including Kavala, on charges of attempting to violently overthrow the government by organising the Gezi protests.

Babacan is among 746 plaintiffs in the Gezi trial, who mostly claim their property was damaged as a result of the protests. Babacan said he would have preferred not to be included as a plaintiff in the Gezi trial. “Personally I have not faced any personal damage related to Gezi,” he told T24.

“Freedoms of expression and association are under threat. You cannot say ‘they are trying to destroy the state’ whenever people come together. Saying ‘you are a traitor, you are trying to overthrow me’ to anyone who thinks differently; this is not right,” he said. 

Babacan told T24 that Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), should also not be kept in pre-trial detention. “The more open the way of the political line Demirtaş represents, the more it is included in politics, the better it is for Turkey,” he said.

Babacan was sidelined in 2015 as Erdoğan surrounded himself with advisers who shared the president’s unorthodox economic beliefs. But this also coincided with a departure from the AKP’s approach to the country’s Kurdish issue, as a peace process with Kurdish militants that had started in 2009 totally collapsed.

According to politicians in Babacan’s circle, the new party is more likely to appeal to Kurds than Davutoğlu, who served as prime minister during Turkish military’s operations in mainly Kurdish urban centres that followed the end of the peace process. Babacan recently held two days of consultations with 15 people on the Kurdish issue. 

Yusuf Alataş, a Kurdish author who attended the workshop, said he thought Babacan was sincere about his aspirations concerning human rights and democracy, but he was not sure how that would affect his approach to the Kurdish conflict. The author said even ensuring democratic rights and the independence of the judiciary would allow discussions on the solution of the Kurdish issue and end the crackdown on Kurdish politicians.

The Defenders of Rights Platform, a group that advocates for Kurdish rights in metropolitan areas, also had a meeting with Babacan. “Ali Babacan started his talk by dividing AKP’s years in power into two, the period between 2002 and 2011 and the period after 2011,” said İlyas Buzgan, the head of the group. Buzgan said Babacan had described the first period as a time of restoration and reform, while he had associated the second one as a backlash against reforms. 

Buzgan said Babacan had agreed that a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish issue was essential, but said it was too early to predict Babacan’s real approach as his party’s vision and principles had not been made clear yet. 

© Ahval English

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