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Key Erdogan Ally Leaves AKP

Former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan resigns after party suffers major defeat in municipal elections

A founding member of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party resigned on Monday, posing another challenge to the president’s grip on power, analysts told The Media Line.

Parliamentarian and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan said he resigned from Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) due to “deep differences” over party policies. He will reportedly establish a new party this year with former president Abdullah Gul.

“The current situation necessitated a brand new vision of [the] future in Turkey because we have a new, dynamic and promising generation that has completely different demands,” Babacan wrote in a statement, according to the Hurriyet, a daily Turkish newspaper.

Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of parliament for the AKP and now a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford’s Middle East Center, said he believed the splinter party would include both AKP supporters and more liberal people.

“Whether this new party will be an electoral threat to Erdogan will depend on how successful Babacan will be in attracting centrist and progressive politicians who will be attractive to both the conservatives and the Center-Right,” Kiniklioglu wrote in an email to The Media Line.

“It is no easy task, as the last six years have seen intense polarization in our politics and hence, it is extremely difficult to find people who still command respect and prestige,” he added.

The resignation comes after Erdogan’s party lost the mayoral races in the capital Ankara, and in Istanbul. The latter defeat was especially damaging for the Turkish president, who pressured the electoral committee to rerun the vote after the main opposition initially won by a slight margin.

A second election on June 23 saw the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, vastly increase his margin of victory to 800,000 votes ahead of Erdogan’s candidate and ally, Binali Yildirim.

Some AKP voters switched their support to Imamoglu’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won districts that were traditionally conservative.

Turkey’s struggling economy, which entered a recession last year after a currency crisis, largely contributed to the AKP losses.

Erdogan has increasingly taken control over the country’s finances, which have also been damaged by some of his political disputes. He entered into a diplomatic row with the United States last summer over a detained American pastor, which led to Washington implementing sanctions, sparking a currency meltdown.

People in Turkey also blasted Erdogan last year after he named his son-in-law finance minister. On Saturday, the president fired the head of the central bank, increasing concerns that Erdogan would continue on an unorthodox economic path.

In contrast, Babacan is a former economy minister credited with helping spur Turkey’s financial growth in the last decade.

Osman Can, another former member of Erdogan’s AKP, said he believed the new party would be formed in the fall with support from Gul, who will allow Babacan to take the lead.

A splinter party is especially dangerous for Erdogan because it could attract enough support from his party’s lawmakers to threaten his majority in parliament.

“It’s very unpredictable,” Can, now a professor at Istanbul’s Marmara University, wrote in an email to The Media Line.

In the past, Erdogan has tried to besmirch political opponents. In the municipal elections, he attempted to tie the CHP party to terrorism.

The presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, was behind bars during the 2018 presidential race, where he remains today. There are also dozens of imprisoned journalists in Turkey, which the Committee to Protect Journalists calls the top jailer of journalists in the world.

However, Yusuf Sarfati, an associate professor of comparative politics at Illinois State University, argues that since Babacan is such a high-profile figure within Erdogan’s party, he will not face the same legal fights.

“I think it will be much harder for Erdogan to delegitimize Babacan and others,” Sarfati stated in an email to The Media Line.

He agreed that the loss of the Istanbul election gave Babacan a better opportunity to break away from the AKP.

Erdogan has also been criticized for alienating voters by using a harsh nationalist tone during the municipal elections, which he labelled as a fight for survival.

Sarfati said the new party could appeal to those closer to the center of the political spectrum who are unhappy with Erdogan’s strong rhetoric and are looking for greater fiscal responsibility.

While cautioning that it was too early to predict what the electoral fallout for Erdogan could be, Sarfati said the new party could attract 10 to 15 percent of the vote.

“I think this is a serious challenge,” Sarfati said.