Can Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) Remedy Turkey’s Woes?

Turkey’s former economy minister Ali Babacan split from Erdogan’s party ranks as the result of several disagreements over democracy and management of the economy. In short order, he established his own party built on a promising agenda; but can Babacan remedy Turkey’s woes? While the answer is unclear, it is certain that Babacan will remain an important political actor.
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On 8 June 2019, Ali Babacan, a former minister of the economy and foreign affairs, resigned from the AKP party that he had helped to found. Shortly afterward, on 11 March 2020, he established the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) with cofounders from varying socio-economic and political backgrounds. Diversity has been encouraged not only among the cofounders but also within all branches of the party. To this end, DEVA strives to consist of 35% women, 20% youth, and 50% individuals who have not previously held political office. In the case of those with political backgrounds, the party has worked to maintain a careful balance. In other words, the cofounders and members of the boards of all branches have been carefully selected according to the above quotas as put forth by the party headquarters. 

As a result of this principled approach, most of the presidents of the party’s district branches are independent individuals who applied online to work with the party. Following the initial establishment procedures, a survey of political preferences was conducted among all party members (approximately 20,000 respondents participated), according to which 30% had voted for the AKP in the most recent elections, 20% CHP, 10% Good Party, 10% MHP, 10% HDP, 10% various smaller parties, and 10% did not vote. With the results of this survey in hand, Ali Babacan has been better equipped to answer questions as to the political makeup and leaning of DEVA, declaring that it is not a continuation of the AKP but a new centrist party in Turkish political life. Indeed, the result of the party-wide survey can be viewed as a microcosm of Turkey as a whole. Helun Firat, (daughter of the late HDP deputy and AKP cofounder Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat), Halil Ozsoy (a former member of parliament from Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party), Ramiz Ongun (a well-known figure from the MHP), Sanem Oktar (a founder of the Turkish Women Entrepreneurs Association), and retired Lieutenant General Mehmet Sanver can all be listed as examples of the political diversity offered by DEVA. Some have drawn comparisons between DEVA and Turgut Ozal’s catch-all Motherland Party, both of which assume a non-ideological approach that houses politicians representing the nationalist right, the conservative/religious right, the liberal right, and the center-left.

Although Babacan has been harshly criticized for his long-time political partnership with Erdogan, his successful management of the economy while in office is a key reason for the support he has been able to garner among an eclectic group of voters. In the end, DEVA prioritizes the need for Turkey’s citizens to come together to improve the prospects for Turkey’s future. This is particularly true during these times when Turks are suffering from economic crisis and bad governance, a reality of hopelessness that is observed in young people’s desire to leave the country as they deem existing opposition parties unable to effect change.

Babacan is a well-known politician in Turkey, and his international reputation and economic successes as Minister of the Economy make him an attractive candidate, especially given Turkey’s abysmal economic situation. However, according to the polls, DEVA is not performing so well: for Avrasya Research Company DEVA is barely capturing 6% of the electorate, for others the figure is closer to 2 or 3%.  There are two main reasons for the poor polling rates: first, the majority of mainstream media functions as a mouthpiece of the current government, meaning that the voters have not yet heard of DEVA. Second, due to pressure exerted by the authoritarian structure of the country, respondents may not trust telephone polling companies, therefore instead of openly declaring support for DEVA, they instead declare themselves as either undecided or supporters of the current ruling parties. It should not be forgotten that according to the polls, undecided voters represent at least 10% of the electorate, most of whom previously voted for the AKP.

While DEVA qualified to take part in elections by holding its grand congress on 29 December 2020 (just 9 months after its establishment), by the end of 2021 it swelled to over 100,000 members and established branches in 81 municipalities and 700 districts. The fact that the number of members, which was around 58,000 in October 2021, nearly doubled in just three months shows the extent to which the party has grown – a reality that may not be reflected in the polls.

According to statements given during the party’s most recent provincial congress in Ankara in December 2021, Istanbul, Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, Mardin, and Hatay host the most party members, in descending order. Understandably, as the most populated city in the country, Istanbul ranks first on this list, but DEVA’s popularity within the largely Kurdish populated provinces of Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, and Mardin raises an interesting point: DEVA has managed to attract a significant amount of members in Kurdish majority cities.

There are multiple reasons for this. For one, the party was able to rapidly organize and hold provincial congresses in nearly all of the eastern provinces. More importantly, however, it openly engages the Kurdish question within its program, aiming to “meet Kurdish citizens’ demands for democratic rights, freedom, and equal citizenship” and to “make the necessary arrangements for all citizens to use and develop their mother tongue as a right”.

While the rise of nationalist and populist rhetoric is observed not only in Turkey but in nearly every political environment across the globe, DEVA’s approach to controversial issues such as refugees, regional conflicts, and the Kurds is remarkable. During a field office visit in Hatay, Babacan was stopped by a citizen and asked about Syrian refugees, he responded: “In the run-up to elections, some parties will come out and say, ‘Vote for us and we will send them [the Syrians] back’. But they won’t be able to do this, either from the humanitarian point of view or under international law. We are realistic. The solution must be sought in Syria. Turkey’s Syria policy needs to be completely rewritten”.

Naturally, as for all other opposition parties, DEVA faces a number of challenges, including its ability to achieve visibility within a media and political landscape that is dominated and restricted by the government. However, DEVA also has its own unique challenges: it reminds many of the AKP and others of yet another catch-all party. Here it should be remembered that the story of the AKP began with promises of democracy, development, welfare, and even EU membership. Yet today’s AKP has a very different vision, hence many people’s cynical reaction to DEVA’s promises of democracy and progress. Some critics have even gone as far as to label the party the “Blue AKP” in reference to the color of its logo. The shift of mainstream politics to the right is another challenge for a conciliatory party such as DEVA, which is trying to reach across the aisle, from right to left, religious to secular. 

Nevertheless, politics have their own dynamics, and more importantly, Turkey is approaching these elections that many consider the country’s last exit to democracy. Despite the ailing Turkish economy and increased support for the opposition, Erdogan remains strong, a fact that, interestingly enough, may make the deliberative democracy stylings of DEVA and Ali Babacan all the more impactful. First of all, basic mathematics reason that the opposition needs to acquire votes from Erdogan’s base in order to overtake him. Erdogan may be losing his ground, but those who are leaving his side may be taking their votes with them, votes that are not being granted to the opposition. Herein, DEVA could likely be the closest next choice for disheartened Erdogan voters. Secondly, rather than focusing on defeating Erdogan, the opposition should be preparing for and voicing their vision of the transition period ahead. Doing so will attract undecided voters who are yearning for an alternative, because if there is no alternative then the status quo becomes the best option. To this end, Ali Babacan’s DEVA has been preparing in-depth and itemized action plans and tailored policy recommendations. Third, an opposition victory in either snap or normal elections does not mean that authoritarianism won’t rear its ugly head in the future. Autocratic regimes and leaders are likely to rebound rather quickly, so the opposition needs to stick together not only in their opposition to Erdogan but in their will to win over his former voters. It is in this space where figures like Ali Babacan can act as moderators, coordinators, and facilitators, playing a critical role in forging a path forward for Turkey.