ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be facing his biggest political challenge, with the resignation of his former economic czar Ali Babacan threatening to split his ruling AKP Party. Party discontent is escalating amidst economic malaise and deteriorating human rights.
"Under the current conditions, Turkey needs a brand-new vision for its future," Babacan said Monday upon resigning. "It has become inevitable to start a new effort for Turkey's present and future. Many of my colleagues and I feel a great and historic responsibility toward this effort."
New political party
Babacan is expected to launch a new political party as early as September. A founding member of AKP, Babacan served as foreign and economy minister in the early years of the party's rule. He is widely credited with presiding over Turkey's economic transformation with unparalleled record growth.
"We can normalize the society, end the polarization within society," said Osman Can, a former national AKP board member, who now supports Babacan's movement. "We can normalize relations with the United States and Europe. We can also be a hope for the region. This is why I am hopeful, for Babacan lives as a conservative but his thinking is liberal."
The AKP originally was a coalition of liberals and religious conservatives, ushering in wide-ranging democratic reforms in its early years of rule. However, criticism of Erdogan's leadership within the party has been building, with his centralizing of power and accusations of increasing authoritarianism. Following the 2016 failed coup, hundreds of thousands have been purged from their jobs or jailed, in a crackdown that continues.
"After the coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan came to the decision [that] he is under attack and only needs loyal people and family advising and working for him," said Can. "In the AKP, there is only one will, the will of Mr. Erdogan. There is no person able to criticize or willing to criticize."
Analysts suggest the tipping point for an AKP split and whether a new party succeeds is the economy. For the last year, Turkey has fallen into an economic malaise of recession, near-record unemployment and double-digit inflation.
"According to a recent poll, 30% of AKP voters are extremely unhappy with the economic management," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, a business management consultancy. "The message is simple, if Erdogan improves the economy they [the new party] will have less of a chance. If he screws up once again, then Mr. Babacan, with proven crisis management skills, will be well-placed."
Gul to support Babacan
According to sources linked to the new movement, Babacan is receiving financial support from conservative businesses, who traditionally back the AKP. Such support is likely facilitated by former President Abdullah Gul. He is another AKP founder, who is backing Babacan and has close links to conservative companies.
However, analysts warn Babacan has to look for support beyond the AKP. "If it becomes a movement or party built and run by former AKP party members, then forget it. It will be a huge failure," said sociology professor Mesut Yegen of Istanbul's Sehir University.
"I think Turkish people are really demanding a new style of politics," he added, "and you can see this in other parties as well. This is why they [Babacan's party] need to find some new faces to introduce to the Turkish public."
"There should be new faces," agreed Can, "from the center-right and center-left, not just conservatives. It should be people who are rational, not rigid, and Babacan and others are in talks with such people."
There could be risks
However, openly challenging Erdogan has risks. Observers say some AKP dissidents who've sought to set up a new party or break ranks have run into legal troubles on trumped-up charges from a compliant judiciary.
"There are strong voices in Ankara to make pressure, to make accusations and investigations," said Can, a law professor at Istanbul's Marmara University and a former judge-rapporteur at Turkey's Constitutional Court.
"Their [AKP's] power in Ankara is dissolving. They are losing support within the state, within the bureaucracy, the judiciary," he added. "These people see things are changing. They are changing their minds, and they are starting not to work with the government. They know change is coming and they are protecting themselves."
For now, Erdogan is dismissing Babacan, saying he "will not reach anything by doing this." Setting up a new party infrastructure in Turkey is challenging and time-consuming, given the country's size and population of 80 million.
Erdogan plans tour
However, in a move widely interpreted as shoring up support and containing any defections to Babacan's movement, Erdogan is set to tour Turkey, visiting party branches.
The president is already reeling from last month's loss of the Istanbul mayorship in a shock opposition landslide victory. Yegen suggested Babacan's move against Erdogan could benefit from a new mood in Turkey.
"There are signs that Turkey is thirsty for new forms of leadership, and this can be translated into new programs and new styles of politics. But on the other hand, we cannot be sure this change will take place in a gradual manner or suddenly," said Yegen.