The first consequence of President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) landslide defeat in the Istanbul reelection on June 23 were tremors shaking his power within the party, as it was anticipated before the elections.
The resignation of Ali Babacan, Erdoğan‘s former economy captain from the AKP of which he was one of the founders in 2001 is the first big loss; there could be more resignations following Babacan. (*)
It was Erdoğan who asked for the re-vote by persistent demands on the Supreme Election Board (YSK) because his candidate Binali Yıldırım lost to main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Ekrem İmamoğlu by 13 thousand votes on March 31 local elections, in the city of more than 10.5 million registered voters. The result turned into a disaster for Erdoğan as the gap widened up to 806 thousand votes: a difference of roughly 9 percent.
During AKP’s first executive board meeting where the election result was evaluated on June 26, Erdoğan reportedly brought up the subject of getting a provincial governor to open a court case against İmamoğlu because of an alleged insult case during the election campaign; the plan would be to get İmamoğlu convicted,so as to make him lose his mayor post. That demonstrated Erdoğan’s difficulty in coming to terms with the election defeat. AKP’s first deputy chairman Hayati Yazıcı objected to this proposal saying that it would be going too far and there were no legal grounds anyway. Turkish media reported that Erdoğan dressed down Yazıcı, also his personal lawyer for long years so badly that many members of the board preferred to keep their mouths shut.
The defeat has accelerated the moves within the AKP to force Erdoğan to end his trajectory to absolute one-man-rule or resign from the AKP which has been ruling the country since 2002 to establish a new party.
Erdoğan’s former Foreign Minister and then his handpicked successor as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in a public meeting in the Eastern town of Elazığ that “If new developments had proved” that the AKP was on the right track, he could have “kept silent till eternity” but that “somebody has to give the account of the deep despair” in AKP grassroots caused by the Istanbul defeat. “AKP is not the party of a person, a family or a group; it was not launched as such” Davutoğlu said, still being a member of the AKP; “If masses have started to leave the party, you cannot stop disintegration, no matter how you threaten them. A new political understanding is needed.”
Davutoğlu has a group of followers in the conservative deep Anatolia but has been held responsible by many, including the business circles, for the failing Syria policy which dragged Turkey into the “quagmire of the Middle East”, a term widely used in Turkish politics.
Business circles, in and out of Turkey eye the moves of another AKP figure who is also upping a gear in his initiative which might bring about a new party from within the AKP: Ali Babacan. Once the economy czar of the AKP, Babacan also served as the European Affairs Minister and Foreign Minister in the heydays of the Erdoğan governments. Being one of the founding members of the AKP, Babacan is in close contact with another founder, former President and Prime Minister Abdullah Gül and Mehmet Şimşek, his successor as Treasury Minister before the ministry was merged with Finance ministry and handed over to Berat Albayrak, President Erdoğan’s son in law.
Recently, Davutoğlu made a call on Babacan to join efforts, followed by another AKP founder, Abdüllatif Şener, who, as one of Erdoğan’s former finance ministers, resigned from AKP years ago. But Babacan has not responded to Davutoğlu’s call. Babacangives the message that their initiative aims to address beyond the pious/conservative voters; he also wishes to target the secular centre-right who are scared of the one-man-rule trajectory of Erdoğan and liberals who supported the AKP rule in the very first years and who later on regretted it due to the manipulation of the judiciary for political purposes, regression in the use of basic rights ad freedoms and the government intrusions to the market economy.
Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın recently confirmed reports that Erdoğan had a meeting with Babacan. He did not, however, get into the details of media reports claiming that Erdoğan offered Babacan to return to the government to run the economy but that Babacan turned him down on the grounds that he wouldn’t have the flexibility to perform a structural reform program, especially with Albayrak still around.
Then a prosecutor opened an investigation against Babacan about his alleged links with Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher who is indicted to mastermind the July 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey. The investigation was immediately dropped after Bülent Arınç, another founder of the party, former Parliamentary Speaker who was recently appointed as a member of the President’s newly established Consultative Board (almost everything is “supreme” in Turkey’s Presidential system) intervened. Arınç said during a TV interview that if such an investigation was considered as a threat to Babacan’s initiative for a new party, it could only speed it up.
Babacan and Davutoğlu have one thing in common. That is a revision of the executive presidential system that Erdoğan achieved through a 2017 referendum with the help of his election partner Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Babacan and Davutoğlu say they have seen enough of the Alla Turca Presidential model’s failures and want a shift to a stronger parliamentary system with separation of powers and checks-and-balances.
That is actually what the opposition leaders, namely CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Meral Akşener of the Good Party (GP) have been saying for a long time. Last week Kılıçdaroğlu repeated his call on Erdoğan and said that he was ready to cooperate with the AKP over a constitutional amendment for a stronger parliament and independent judiciary.
When AKP deputies attempted to open up the drawbacks of the current system in Erdoğan’s “consultations” with them, he reportedly ended the discussion by saying “no way back”, despite other reports claiming that the Presidential office has started towork with McKinsey to revise the system. Erdoğan earlier said in Parliament that if there is need to fine–tune the system, they don’t need the advice of anyone else, implying the domestic criticisms, but would make the correction themselves.
But criticisms are coming from every direction. Even Arınç, enjoying his comeback to Erdoğan’s close circle said in a recent TV interviews the following: “We have lost our wind, our enthusiasm. (..) Now 50 percent [of the voters] hate us.” He also thinks the system should be revised but not as radical as inner AKP opposition or opposition party leaders suggested. Arınç wants Erdoğan to leave his position as AKP chairman, without openly suggesting himself for the position.
In answer to those, Erdoğan denied that his AKP is experiencing tremors after the local elections, particularly after the Istanbul re-vote. “Keep your morale high, we are not defeated,” he said to a group of AKP deputies during a meeting on July 4; “We have seen similar attempts in the past; they are history now”. The next day he said publicly that “Those who think the shadow of the AKP is the shadow of their own, will collapse like an empty sack.”
Erdoğan might either be in a state of denial of the fact that his uninterrupted rise in politics has come to a halt in Istanbul where it started 25 years ago, or simply thinks that if he doesn’t admit the defeat, he could hide what has been happening from the eyes of his followers in this era of communications. But the post-election trauma of the AKP might end up in Erdoğan’s losing some of his current powers, and perhaps also his AKP’s dominant position in the parliament through splits.
(*) Updated as of 13.55 on July 8 after Babacan’s resignation.