Is the Turkish political arena about to be reshuffled?
The domestic political changes in Turkey gained new momentum with former Economy Minister Ali Babacan's resignation from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last week. He was the boss of the economy for several years. He also served as foreign minister and chief negotiator with the EU, as well as deputy prime minister.
He is regarded as the man who made the most substantive contribution to Turkey's successful economic recovery in the early years of the AKP government. Unsurprisingly, his major disagreement with his boss, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was in the field of economic policy. Erdogan opposed Babacan's policy of high interest rates probably because interest is banned in Islam, while the latter believed that the economy has to be managed according to its own rules, rather than using religious precepts.
When Babacan visited Erdogan last week to tender his resignation, the president tried to persuade his former minister to stay in the party, but to no avail.
There is a favorable wind behind Babacan because one of Turkey's major problems is the fragility of its economy; and additional economic difficulties seem to be in the pipeline. One set of them is expected to be from the US because of the arrival in Turkey last Friday of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Washington has consistently threatened that several sanctions will be imposed if the missile system is deployed in Turkey. Another set of measures is coming from the EU because of Ankara's oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.
When these measures start stinging, the need for proper management of Turkey's economy will increase and public opinion will turn to a man who successfully led the country's economy to safe harbours in the past.
Rumors about Babacan's impending resignation from the AKP had been running in the Turkish media for months, and now it is confirmed. The names of several AKP Members of Parliament are also mentioned as potential transfers to Babacan's new party, but it would be premature to take this for granted because Erdogan will do everything he can to keep the departures to a minimum. Furthermore, despite his resignation, Babacan has yet to formally announce that he is going to form a new political party.
Erdogan criticized Babacan's attitude by using Islamic references and claimed that he was trying to divide the Ummah (the Islamic community). If he used this word in the sense of referring to the AKP's voters, it would be first time that a Turkish politician in the republican era had referred to his electorate as such.
One sentence was important in what Erdogan told Babacan. "If you plan to form a political party, do it at once," he said. Some analysts in Turkey thought that Erdogan encouraged Babacan to form his party as soon as possible so that he could neutralize it immediately, because this might be more difficult at a date closer to the next elections. Others thought that Erdogan meant "do whatever you want" or "I do not care."
Babacan's resignation was preceded by the move of another prominent AKP figure, Ahmet Davutoglu, who served Erdogan as foreign minister and prime minister. Unlike Babacan, Davutoglu has brandished his flag by holding meetings where he declared he was going to form a new party.
Since there is hardly any overlapping area in the political doctrine of these two prominent politicians, they will probably seek the votes of different electorates. Babacan will seek the support of those who are discontent with the present economic hardship, while Davutoglu is supported by Turks who dream of a strong Turkey that would play a leadership role in the region.
Setting up new parties will not much change Turkey's political landscape unless there is a landslide shift of voters from the AKP to these parties. To attain a majority in Parliament, at least 45 members of the government bloc (the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party) would have to join the new parties. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that all opposition parties would act together.
To force early elections with a view to altering the makeup of Parliament is also difficult. A three-fifths qualified majority is required to hold early elections, meaning that 104 MPs from the government bloc would have to join the opposition, which is not an easy task to achieve. Early elections could really only be held if the deterioration of the country's economy forced Erdogan to call for them. In other words, the setting up of new parties may change the distribution of seats in Parliament, but not the decision-making majority.
The writer is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.