CORONAVIRUS AND POLITICS

After Premature Birth Amid Turkey’s Coronavirus Frenzy, Babacan’s Party Seeks to Reboot Political Fortunes

Erdogan’s former economy Czar defected with a breakaway party. But his boldest gamble initially became a victim of coronavirus frenzy. He now seeks a recoup with a media blitz.

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Ali Babacan and founding members of the new DEVA Party pose for a photograph during the party’s launch this March. (Photo: social media)

Prologue

After a yearlong, protracted preparation in a quest for the maximum impact for his new party’s launch, former Economy Minister Ali Babacan finally took that decisive final step in March, but to a little effect. His much-anticipated bid initially fell victim to Turkey’s coronavirus frenzy as the country declared a national war against the global pandemic. As a consequence, the DEVA (Democracy and Progress) Party, whose initials invoke the meaning of ‘remedy,’ suffered a premature birth due to ill-chosen timing amid a state of emergency against a fatal enemy, which has so far claimed 4,927 lives across Turkey.

The entire public debate, for the moment, has been consumed by the virus as it emerged as the number one priority of authorities to thwart its deadly contagion and to mitigate its profound impact on the economy amid reopening of most sectors in May. The momentum Babacan normally expected had not materialized, at least not in the first weeks of his initiative. The failure to generate enthusiasm among a populace menaced by the twin encroachment of a deadly virus and the punishing impact of a two-month lockdown on their lifelines led some observers to forsake the young politician as a contender against Erdogan.

A recent survey attests to the lackluster start of the party, which slightly garners little more than 2 percent of the votes across the country if a snap election takes place today. What the survey reveals is that, although the ruling AKP suffers a dramatic decline in its votes, voters still plump for mainstream parties, not new ones. While it means that the prospect of mass defections to the parties formed by Davutoglu and Babacan remains considerably low at the moment, it still emphasizes a fundamental role they play: stealing votes away from Erdogan’s party. But this matters little given that the legislative body is no longer the one which pulls the strings under the new presidential system where the president forms his cabinet and easily elbows Parliament aside whenever he deems convenient.

When he stumbled on a terrain radically redefined by an unusual dynamic — the coronavirus pandemic — after the first weeks of the party’s launch, how Babacan would salvage his faltering political prospects appeared to be a vexing matter. But there were (are) far deeper and more intractable issues just beyond the ill-considered timing for the party’s thrust to Turkey’s ever-expanding political landscape. The question of whether Erdogan’s former economy czar would be the savior of a decaying economy and democracy dwarfs all other questions with no convincing answer available at hand. His “baby-face,” as one journalist puts it, registers little hope over his capability to stand up against Erdogan. His easygoing and risk-aversion moves, for others, fail to generate enthusiasm for Turkey’s fragmented opposition hankering for a figure to coalesce around him. Yet, for all the odds and challenges he faces after his audacious bid, it would be imprudent to write him off out of hand. After a bungled start, the former economy minister seeks to reboot his chances with a media blitz by pointed and timely criticism of Erdogan’s poor management of the economy and the country. And recent weeks witness his steady comeback with increasing popularity.

The Story of Break With Erdogan

What animated Babacan’s defection last year was his first-hand witnessing of Erdogan’s growing grip on the reins of power with little regard for the spirit of the law. As the president began to play fast and loose with the rule of law, it not only accelerated unwinding of Turkey’s imperfect democracy, but also alienated his allies in his inner circle. (Babacan has not taken any role in AKP governments since 2015.)

For Babacan, the country’s menacing drift into authoritarianism was hard to bear. After a long period of pondering, he broke free of all his allegiances to the longest-serving leader of Turkey since Ataturk. Last year, he officially submitted his resignation to the party with which he has been associated since its inception nearly two decades ago.

In an emailed conversation last year after Babacan’s departure from the AKP, Gallia Lindenstrauss, Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told me the following:

Babacan resignation is significant since he was considered by inner and outside actors as an apt economic figure with a deep understanding of Turkey’s economic situation. Hence the timing of the resignation, which overlapped with the removal of Turkey’s central bank chief, seems meaningful.

Yet, she was, as others were, cautious over the implications of Babacan’s new course of action. Last year was a turning point for the political fortunes of the president who conceded a remarkable defeat in local elections. It became a searing indictment of the government’s fraying popularity among its core support base after the loss of Istanbul, which slipped to a candidate from a non-conservative party for the first time in the past 25 years.

“In general, and despite CHP candidate Imamoglu’s impressive victory in Istanbul, it seems that any big change in the political leadership in Turkey will only come from a split within the AKP,” she said. “What we are seeing now is the beginning of such a process, although I’m not sure it is still substantial enough to create change in the short term.”

In the following months of the conversation, the anticipated split took place in two steps; first Davutoglu moved to form a party in December while Babacan did the same this March.

Erdogan snapped Babacan’s intention to form a new party when he first learned last year. The president was already eager to pitch any breakaway as a betrayal of epic proportions. He even cast it in an Islamic language, portraying the defections as deviations from the path of the sacred cause associated with the party’s ethos since its onset. Last summer, prosecutors briefly launched a probe into the former economy minister after his resignation from the AKP, only to drop it soon later.

Though Erdogan appeared to betray no sense of alarm at first after the party announcement in March, he has nevertheless been nervous about the domino effect of further defections. Shrewdness, usually the prerogative of the veteran politician who weathered many political storms after existential crises in the past decade, replaced with an unconcealed sense of anxiety. A number of recent surveys and the melting popularity of his party due to poor handling of the coronavirus prompted contemplation of some old-school machinations to thwart the two parties’ participation in the next elections, as some media reports recently suggested. Unlike Davutoglu, Babacan seems to have a wider appeal and reach among Turkey’s business elites, in international financial environments and foreign capitals. Apart from commanding a more amenable and appealing diplomatic tone, the remedies Babacan advocates for Turkey’s current political predicament and economic conundrum telegraph an air of statecraft devoid of any ideological cliches sometimes espoused by Davutoglu, the former prime minister.

Attempts to Avoid Association With Erdogan’s Toxic Legacy

Before delving to the party program and his growing media posture, a brief look at the chief motivation that drove Babacan (and Davutoglu) to chart out a separate path in politics would be a good starting point to understand why this separation took place in the first place.

There is a growing recognition among the circles formerly associated with the ruling AKP that the current state of political affairs is no longer sustainable or preferable. The fear of association with Erdogan’s toxic political legacy also serves as a new impulse for a clear break as early as possible. In the cases of Babacan and Davutoglu, this awareness manifests itself in a thinly-veiled attempt to offer a new narrative over the history of their relationship with Erdogan and the nature of their involvement in the unraveling of Turkey’s democracy. It is no secret that they now do their best to polish their image by casting themselves as junior participants, not agenda-setting actors, in the policy-making within Erdogan’s court in their last years in the government. This rewriting of the near past is clearly demonstrated when Davutoglu offered his personal account of how significant episodes such as the revival of the war with the PKK in June 2015 and the downing of the Russian jet in November 2015 actually took place, shifting the gravity of the blame on the Erdogan’s unsavory handling of both cases. What was inherent in such an attempt was the desire to insulate himself from the charges of complicity in Erdogan’s late authoritarian turn as Davutoglu illuminated (with in-depth details) on the president’s trigger-happy approach in the jet crisis and his nationalist shift in the renewed war against PKK in a bid to reverse an incomplete election result in June 2015 parliamentary elections.

To give him credit, Davutoglu has a point and it would be unfair to hold him solely responsible for the follies and predicaments that beset Turkey’s government in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when he was in charge of the government. But his efforts to minimize his personal responsibility also serve to obscure an unpleasant but evident reality about the existence of a dual power structure when Erdogan elbowed Davutoglu aside on many occasions to dictate his policy through the council of ministers normally chaired by the prime minister as the sole executive power. Many times, it was President Erdogan who called the shots behind the scenes, casting aside the constitutional propriety and established norms.

In the case of Babacan, the former economy Czar now extends his criticism of Erdogan’s mismanagement of the economy before the current pandemic. In a series of interviews he gave to BBC Turkce, Fox TV, Bloomberg and other media channels, Babacan points to the concentration of power at the hands of one man as the underlying point of division between him and the AKP, something that finally sealed his eventual breakaway.

In remarks to Bloomberg, he sought to cast a dissident figure during his late role as a minister in Erdogan’s cabinet when the pivot away from the democratic path began to manifest itself in late 2013. Aware of the potential criticism of silence (or even co-optation) during those years, he argued that he relayed his warnings, deliberations and opinions to then-Prime Minister Erdogan through internal channels without compromising the party regulations for not going public when party’s senior figures diverge over matters of national importance. Yet, this benign portrayal of his personal account does little to assuage a skeptic audience.

Separately, the public expectation that former President Abdullah Gul might join Babacan’s new party has not materialized. The former president’s inveterate prevarication was once again manifestly on display, depriving Babacan of an additional gravity of power against the resilience of Erdogan’s appeal in the center-right. Gul’s equivocation was reckoned to have a delaying impact on Babacan’s party launch. Still, the former economy minister took that bold step without Gul, and for good reason, it seems.

There are two lines of arguments that measure the odds of Babacan’s success and the prospects of a tangible change in the political complexion of Turkey. The first line of thought dismisses the former economy minister as a serious contender who could cobble an alliance together against President Erdogan. The second argument simply contends that even if Babacan would not muster enough electoral muscle to unseat Erdogan, his party still would play a pivotal role by depriving the incumbent president of enough votes he needs for his re-election. In the new composition of Parliament, Babacan, along with a potential electoral alliance either with CHP or another center-right party, would inflict serious losses to Erdogan’s AKP. Given the AKP’s ever-eroding electoral appeal since November 2015 parliamentary elections, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is within the realm of possibility. But this positive forecast is offset by the new reality about Parliament, which is reduced to a shadow of its former self, if not completely rendered a rubber-stamp body.

The Myth of Babacan the Savior

Before his break with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Babacan served in various roles as Foreign Minister, Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments for more than a decade. But of all posts, he established his credentials as an astute architect of Turkey’s economic policies during a considerable growth in the first decade of the AKP rule. He has cultivated cordial relations with Western financial circles. From an economic perspective, his eye-catching resume offers reassurance in stark contrast to the current minister in the charge of Turkey’s economy: the president’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak.

Babacan did not waste any time to criticize the government for its flawed economic handling of the pandemic. In his view, the government’s poor record precedes the coronavirus outbreak. In this diagnosis, he is not wrong and his expert comments resonate well with a disgruntled society.

Albayrak’s performance since the formation of the first cabinet in an executive presidential system that came to effect after the June 2018 presidential election has become a stuff of legend in terms of incompetence and folly, raising the naked display of nepotism into a governing principle that has proved disastrous for the country’s good. But the will to power and aspiring for management of Turkey in all aspects requires more than simple financial wizardry (shown by Babacan.)

“Babacan and his party are long-shots. He isn’t a charismatic leader, and the polls say his efforts to re-establish the old Democrat/Adalet secular center-right don’t seem to be making much progress,” Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress, told me in an emailed statement prior to Babacan’s recent media blitz. “As an AKP founder, he’s anyway probably not the best vehicle for such an effort.”

Makovsky is certainly not the only person who harbors genuine concerns over the limits of Babacan’s appeal for the Turkish electorate and his ability to pull off the monumental task of defeating Erdogan at the ballot box. Some commentators and journalists share the same observation about the “baby-face” politician.

Babacan’s political venture is, therefore, met with a mixed sense of caution and skepticism. But the initial cold embrace of him began to have a change of heart as the pandemic laid bare the limits of strongman politics in Turkey amid undeniable symptoms of governmental incompetence. In these gloomy days, people in Turkey clamor for a potent government that delivers goods to its citizens, not a bulk of rabble-rousers (dressed as politicians) on TVs to galvanize the nation against an unseen virus. And Babacan’s name fittingly conveys the image of someone who speaks the truth and who offers a policy prescription to the country's’ economic wounds.

Makovsky’s initial caution does not rule out an important caveat. Babacan, the veteran political analyst reasoned, “is seen at home and abroad as a highly competent bureaucrat who deserves considerable credit for steering Turkey’s economic success in the first years of AKP rule. Since he relinquished that responsibility in 2007, the Turkish economy has never again performed so well.”

He went on to elaborate on this:

“His best hope is that the nation will look to him as the only one who can turn around a sputtering economy when elections next take place, probably in three years, a long time from now. Otherwise, assuming his party is still viable enough to run in those elections, his main impact is likely to be found in the votes he and his party slice away from Erdogan and AKP ”

A Fresh Voice and New Face

The second line of thought gives Babacan a chance, if not a bold one. His interview with a journalist on Youtube in May already had millions of views. After that, a positive commentary poured down on social media. The majority of the feedback was defined by a shared positive judgment about Babacan’s mastery of economics and his diagnosis of the ills that have plagued the political management (of almost everything).

One significant advantage that Babacan has that although he comes from center-right, he can appeal to many voters with his liberal approach. His centralist stance cuts across the cleavages and ideological barriers that normally may dissuade many voters from endorsing politicians from other quarters of the political spectrum. But in none of his active political life, Babacan was regarded to be rigid on ideological terms. He was not seen as an Islamist politician in the same mold as other figures of the AKP.

No less important is the fact that he can comfortably communicate especially with secular business elites who have grown disillusioned with the AKP government but had no other option other than co-optation. Babacan’s very name makes some business circles of the country swoon. His international reputation is another element that may tilt the public opinion in his favor in the months to come. His party already includes figures from the secular corners of Istanbul’s business community. Unpromising though current poll standings may be, these dynamics would still bolster the fortunes of the young politician.

Pandemic and Economy

As the country embarked on a war footing, the pandemic has brutally exposed the gaping inequalities between the haves and have-nots of the Turkish society. The economic suffering of less-endowed parts of society might have registered little alarm for the detached authorities, but it only amplified the resentment of an anguished public.

In an interview with Bloomberg, the former economy minister was unsparing in his direct criticism of the government’s handling of the economy during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“There can be two kinds of mistakes in fiscal and monetary interventions: doing too little or too much. But we’re in such a period that the second kind of mistake is better. It’s not very difficult to hit the brakes later if too much is done. But if the response isn’t large and timely, the cost will be massive,” he told Bloomberg.

The brutal exposure to the economic stress-test of the pandemic must restore rational thinking about the fundamentals of economics, according to Babacan. Yet, disconnected from realities as they are, senior cabinet ministers still appear to be living in a world of make-believe even after the knock-on effects of the COVID lockdown.

The countervailing desire displayed by the former minister seeks to mend fraying ties with the West, not for its own sake, but for the essential need of resuscitating Turkey’s economy. Babacan sees good relations with the West as the precondition of a flow of know-how, foreign direct investment, credits and loans to the country, which has perpetually been trapped in the league of developing countries without ever pulling off a true breakthrough to make a Quantum leap to the level of advanced industrial economies. This drift away from the West, he thinks, accounts for the productivity let-down the country currently faces. (The productivity issue has also been emphasized by Professor Daren Acemoglu of M.I.T. many times recently.)

When Ankara scrambled to find additional foreign funding to prop up the falling lira, it faced problems.

“Turkey must find that forex soon,” the former economy minister told Reuters. For this to happen, he emphasized that Turkey’s government needs to “reinstate the reputation and confidence in its economy management first.”

“The institutions had already lost credibility. You can dictate onion prices… but you cannot dictate the foreign exchange price, that’s not how the international markets work.” (Reuters)

Needless to say, Babacan’s pedigree on the matters of economy lends a weight of authority to what he says as future beckons with troubled days ahead.

With his aversion for acrimonious recriminations, he has so far evaded being Erdogan’s bogeyman. But his increasing tone of direct criticism seemingly tipped Erdogan’s stance into active hostility. Without naming his former economy minister, the president downplayed the role Babacan played in AKP’s economic success in the 2000s. No decision, Erdogan asserted, took place without his blessing, shifting the credibility away from Babacan to himself as the steward of economic policies.

Babacan and Turkey Purge

The country’s track record of human rights violations is too deep and too colossal to gloss over when someone simply invokes the staggering numbers to make sense of the post-coup era. Any political attempt for restoring Turkey’s battered democracy and the fractured institutions back on track does not have any chance of seeing the day without a full-fledged reckoning with the depth of post-coup purge and the monumental scale of sufferings it created for hundreds of thousands of people. Certainly aware of this, senior figures of the party began to address the plight of people who have become victims of the Turkish style of (American) Red-Scare, the never-abating craze of witch-hunt that tore government departments apart.

Among the messages promulgated by DEVA are the reconciliation, restoration of democracy and social peace come forward in its willingness to shed demons of the past few years. Freedom stands revealed as the chief concept in Babacan’s lexicon as he makes a renewed case for democracy and liberties. One founding member told a television channel that without reconciling with the purge victims, neither social peace nor progress forward for the entire country is possible.

“KHK (people) are our bleeding wounds. Even the neighbors had to cut their relationship because they are labeled. People are naturally frightened. Their honors should be restored as soon as possible, at the moment if possible.” (Ali Babacan)

The former minister said those words on a television channel last week. Belated though his remarks may be, they still strike a chord with a segment of society whose plight has been wrapped up under an all-encompassing censorship regime. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been perennially upended.

His pledge to deal with the problem reflects a change of heart at least on some corners of the opposition. This even could pave the way for a new contest among the opposition parties to claim the championship of the rights of the forgotten and the persecuted. Whether Babacan would step back under the potential pressure of Erdogan folks over allegations of association with the Movement, the declared number one enemy of the state after the controversial 2016 coup, remains to be seen. But if he sticks to his current discourse and backs it up with deeds, then his commitment to reconciliation and restoration would undeniably be vindicated.

Conclusion: Building Momentum and Challenges

Turkey’s irrevocable drift away from democracy and the current trajectory of the Turkish economy appears to have taxed the former economy minister's agenda. One of the mainstays of his pointed criticism is that the existence of meager respect for meritocracy accounts for the menacingly resurgent incompetence across the bureaucracy. His other abiding conviction is that the power concentration at a single center could easily be deployed for ill in a shrinking democratic environment (which, as he noted, has been the case for the past several years).

After an unimpressive start, Babacan seems to be building a touch at least with the educated people from different quarters of society. His unsparing criticism of the Erdogan administration over mismanagement of the country’s resources resonates well across the public grown frustrated by the economic deprivation during the pandemic. Babacan seeks to shake the public into thinking that the current state of affairs in most layers of governance is no longer sustainable.

But his audacious bid is certainly not without challenges. The large cast of characters in his party’s executive board feels like a mixed roster of rich figures from the upper strata of the business world and some former bigwigs of the AKP who served in Erdogan’s government as ministers. How this makeshift alliance of the secular bourgeois scions and the conservative/pious former AKP stalwarts fare together in harmony seems a perplexing issue for the party’s internal coherence in the future, if not at the moment that is defined by a shared sense of anti-Erdogan spirit.

Erdogan’s cavalier subversion of Turkey’s democracy poses a threat for all and the immediacy of action unites some unlikely fellows from different quarters of the social spectrum for a shared cause. With more and more defections, Erdogan’s unassailable grip on multiple layers of decision-making as the undisputed Grand Chief of the party became harder to mask; it has been smoked out into the open. Even the personal claim of responsibility by the Interior Minister for a botched curfew announcement in April failed to conceal the true source of the decision made in cooperation with the Palace.

Still, the threat from small but growing two center-right parties cannot be entirely written off as insignificant elements out of hand. Currently, Davutoglu and Babacan’s parties accumulate around 6 percent of the votes, an important amount of share that directly peels voters away from Erdogan’s party, as Makovsky lucidly observes.

“Votes for Babacan’s and Davutoglu’s party could be instrumental in pushing Erdogan into a second-round or possibly even depriving him of another term altogether,” he said.

To be elected President in Turkey, a candidate must win more than 50% in a first-round or come out ahead in a second-round run-off between the top two first-round vote-getters. In both 2014 and 2018, Erdogan won just over 50% in the first round. (Alan Makovsky)

Given the conditional and fragile nature of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli’s support, Erdogan’s party will likely suffer in the next election. In terms of the presidential election, Erdogan would most probably see the second-round for re-election. Yet, the lack of a proper alternative among the opposition still works in his favor. Gul’s public equivocation to run against Erdogan in the 2018 election was never lost on the observers. During his interviews with media outlets, Babacan muses the possibility of an early election next year or in 2022.

Currently, it is not clear whether the pandemic-hit economy would decisively sway the public opinion against Erdogan anytime soon. The recent poll shared in the introduction of the article exposes the grim prospect of an irreversible decline in his standings. Already his party mulls the adoption of new measures to block the two new center-right parties’ participation in the next election. Yet, Erdogan’s knack for miraculous comebacks still gives a pause for premature optimism to augur his endgame.

For much hype and praise heaped on the baby-face minister, the truth is hard to bury to the ground. It is that he is currently not close to standing up to the task of saving the republic against his former patron’s overreach. But this does not necessarily mean writing him off as a lost cause from the start. There are glimmers of hope and undeniable challenges in equal measure. As long as the former economy minister emphasizes the urgency of the pressing bread and butter issues during these troubled times, Erdogan’s naked impotence will be harder to mask. This will increase the prospects of Babacan in the medium to long term, if not immediately at the moment.

Note: This piece has been updated with a minor change.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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