Turkey’s Great New Hope Is the Same Old News

Ali Babacan promises he’s ready to take down Erdogan—but he might leave everything else in place.

Ali Babacan presents his Democracy and Progress Party at a launching ceremony in Ankara on March 11, 2020.
Ali Babacan presents his Democracy and Progress Party at a launching ceremony in Ankara on March 11, 2020. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Turkish opposition’s wait is finally over. After years of speculation, two of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s former confidants, former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, recently volunteered to directly challenge the Turkish president’s grip on power. Davutoglu’s Future Party has positioned itself as a traditionally conservative grouping that aims to preserve Erdogan’s basic governing philosophy, but curb his power over the country; the party has generated little enthusiasm.

Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party—known by the acronym DEVA, which translates to “cure”—however, has sparked excitement among Turkey’s pollsters and pundits. That’s because he has presented himself as a force of wide-reaching change at a time when many Turks have tired of their leadership.

Any new entrant on Turkey’s political stage is a cause for celebration; from the clash of opinions emerge the sparks of truth, as Ottoman poet Namik Kemal once wrote. The heir of a sizable fortune and still widely respected among the global financial elite, Babacan could have returned to a corporate career with fewer risks and more rewards. He could have also succumbed to the many tempting offers that must have been made to dissuade him from politics. It is commendable that he has not.

But there’s good reason to doubt Babacan’s promise as a national leader and his commitment to the liberal democratic values he now claims to uphold.

First, despite all his talk about a change of blood, Babacan’s inner circle mostly offers just more of the same. His second-in-command, Sadullah Ergin, was Turkey’s justice minister from 2009 to 2013, and his tenure saw some of the Erdogan era’s worst excesses. The wholesale purging of hundreds of secular generals, intellectuals, and activists in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup plot trials happened mostly under his watch. Accusations of fabricated charges, forged evidence, and political interference surrounded the trials. Critics decried them as “Soviet-style show trials” and a “miscarriage of justice.” Even Erdogan ultimately disowned them, blaming excesses on his erstwhile ally Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric, and his alleged decades-long conspiracy to install his followers to critical positions at the army, the courts, and the police. After the failed coup in July 2016, which Erdogan accused Gulen of having orchestrated, Erdogan and others offered mea culpas for their association with him, and investigations have only just begun to scratch the surface of his past deeds. The courts were an epicenter of Gulen’s influence, and Ergin was in charge of them for a long time, so he has even more to explain. What did he know, and when did he know it?

Another of Babacan’s top associates is Selma Aliye Kavaf, who chaired the women’s organization of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for seven years and later served two years as the Turkish minister for women and family affairs. Kavaf was extraordinarily notorious. She described homosexuality as a “biological disorder,” which was rebuked by not only by medical professionals and the LGBT community, but even her party’s own health minister, who retorted that sexual orientation is “a matter of personal liberty” that must be handled with “conscience and compassion.” She proposed censoring kissing scenes and other “irritating” themes in movies and TV shows, only backing down after public backlash. After the parliamentary inquiry into reports that more than 700 girls were missing from state orphanages, she responded that was it is a matter for the police, not herself. Her husband’s plum appointments to the state-owned coal monopoly and petroleum exploration company also drew intense criticism. In the words of Ece Temelkuran, one of Turkey’s best-known female novelists, Kavaf was “so silent to the plight of Turkey’s women that they literally don’t know what her voice sounds like.” In the end, she was forced out of both the cabinet and the parliament.

Two of the Turkish opposition’s long-standing grievances are the politicization of the judiciary and the Islamization of society. Erdogan’s critics blame him for packing the courts with his loyalists and using them to persecute dissidents while giving cronies a free pass. They also accuse him of a campaign for religious conservatism, citing a litany of evidence from the increase in femicides to the privileging of clerical schools, and from the construction of large mosques to the growing political influence of Turkey’s top religious authority, the Diyanet. Since joining the opposition, Babacan also started singing the same tune. “There can be no economy without liberty and the rule of law,” he declared recently in a YouTube interview. It is ironic that there are very few people who have done those principles as much disservice as his top lieutenants such as Ergin and Kavaf.

Indeed, Babacan’s own stance on most issues remains unclear. On national security matters such as the wars in Syria and Libya, the refugee problem, the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or accountability for the 2016 coup’s alleged ringleaders, he offers little more than platitudes. He talks of “equal citizenship for all citizens,” but then acts as if he views some as more equal than others. When a BBC journalist asked him about the Diyanet chairman’s remarks blaming homosexuality for the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, his criticism was directed not at the cleric but those protesting him.

A second issue is Babacan’s unconvincing answer to the most obvious question: why didn’t he speak up earlier? His story so far is that he tried to change things from within, used his power to keep the economy steady while reining in the worst excesses of the president and his inner circle, but he ultimately realized that his efforts were in vain, and that’s when he jumped ship. Until then, Babacan argues, his grievances were a matter within the family, and he could not have aired them publicly. This excuse does not pass muster. One of Babacan’s predecessors as deputy prime minister, Abdullatif Sener, a veteran of Islamist politics and one of AKP’s co-founders, had resigned from the party in 2008 after publicly challenging Erdogan for turning a blind eye to corruption and mismanagement. Was he right? Looking at Babacan’s current statements, it seems like he was. If Sener was right, why could he take a stand, but not Babacan? Could it be because Sener’s courage practically banished him from politics for more than a decade while Babacan’s complicity made him one of Ankara’s power brokers?

Third, Babacan’s sales pitch is not as convincing as he makes it sound. According to Babacan, all was well when he and his team were at the helm. They knew how to grow the economy, support local industry, and attract foreign investors. Erdogan changed course because he wanted to enrich his cronies and keep himself in power, and that is when the country’s troubles began. The solution is easy: Bring Babacan back, and he will make Turkey great again with a snap of the finger. But is that really true? As I previously wrote with Durmus Yilmaz, the former Central Bank governor who is also now in the opposition, the actual story is more complicated. And, it casts Babacan in a less favorable light.

Turkey’s economic miracle was a high-risk gambit that worked perfectly until it didn’t. The reform agenda that former World Bank official Kemal Dervis began during his tenure as economy minister after the country’s 2001 financial crisis had already put Turkey on the track to recovery, and Erdogan and his original team also deserve credit for not turning away from it. There is also no denying, however, that the global credit glut greatly aided this success. Had this opportunity been used to invest in technology, increase competitive advantage, and create global brands, it could have had a lasting impact and sustained economic growth. Instead, it was squandered in a construction bonanza, consumption frenzy, and government-financed spending spree. Babacan, who succeeded Dervis as economy minister and had been trained at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, was either clueless about where this path went or too unbothered to do anything to change it other than voicing murmurs of disapproval. It is hard to tell which is worse.

Babacan has been relentlessly attacking Erdogan’s economic management, but he is deafeningly silent when it comes to his own responsibility for it. The controversial megaprojects that poured billions into politically connected construction companies were made possible by a Treasury guarantee scheme that bears Babacan’s signature. Turk Telekom’s sale was once touted as Turkey’s most successful privatization, but later turned into one of the worst scandals of the past decade after its Lebanese owners walked away with $5 billion and saddled Turkish banks with as much in debt. Babacan was the man in charge as it happened. If there is an excuse that exculpates him from blame, the public is yet to hear it. “Criticizing [Erdogan] is not enough,” as veteran journalist Murat Yetkin wrote. “Some self-criticism is also in order.”

In the past, there was a vocal chorus that believed all that’s bad for the secularists is good and unquestioningly supported everything Erdogan did to bring them to heel. Now, the same is happening in reverse, and it is just as big a mistake. It is a necessity, not a mistake, to interrogate the disingenuousness of serving under Erdogan for a decade, and with immense power, only to accuse him of all that is evil once one is no longer in charge. Babacan has to reckon with this history, not pretend that it does not matter.

Who is Babacan, really? Is he the market-minded Muslim democrat many once hoped Erdogan would be or just a cynical opportunist trying to claw back the power he once had? Did he strive behind the scenes to right the wrongs he saw or stay silent to advance his career? Until it knows the answer, Turkey would be better off not taking his cure.

Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University. Twitter: @scsazak

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