Freedom Turkey’s most important issue, says former minister Babacan

Ali Babacan, the former deputy prime minister from Turkey’s ruling party who founded the rival Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) in March, vowed to release imprisoned dissidents as his first act if his party wins power.

Freeing critical journalists and others he called thought criminals is a matter of political will and could be achieved with a “snap of the finger,” Babacan said during an interview with journalist Cüneyt Özdemir.

Babacan, one of the founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been credited for his work managing the country’s economy up to 2015, when he held his last ministerial position.

Babacan was one of several AKP politicians to express discomfort with the party’s increasingly authoritarian turn as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cemented his control over Turkey under a new executive presidential system. He quit the AKP in July last year and called for a return to democracy when he applied to launch DEVA.

You can tell “journalists, columnists, you are free from this moment on, friends,” Babacan said, describing what he would do if his party was elected. “Write whatever you want within the bounds of universal rule of law, we won’t meddle anymore.”

Rights groups and international institutions including the Council of Europe have criticised Turkey for imprisoning a large number of dissidents since the coup attempt in July 2016. Most of the dissidents are charged under loosely defined anti-terror laws.

“Let people get out of prisons and let others see them get out, so (everybody) can start to think freely,” Babacan said.

In another interview broadcast earlier on Monday on the secularist left-wing Halk TV, the former minister said there was an atmosphere of fear prevailing in Turkey. He said that the fight against restrictions to freedom was a subject that could unite the country’s diverse political factions in opposition to Erdoğan.

Babacan said he had been warned against forming a party to oppose the president by friends who said he would be facing a “colossal state power” that also controls the judiciary.

But he said he had been unable to stand by and do nothing “while the country was in such a state,” saying the consolidation of power at the presidency had intensified Turkey’s political problems.

The new system has turned over many of parliament’s powers to the presidency, abolishing the position of prime minister and turning the president, one mainly a ceremonial role, into the most powerful office in the country.

Since an amendment passed in 2017, the president may now also lead a political party, a change that Babacan said had stripped the office of its requirement to remain impartial.

The former deputy prime minister criticised the current system for electing the president, in which a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to win. This, he said, forced political parties to form coalitions before elections, since no single party can secure that share of the vote.

Babacan’s criticism of the current government earned him a rebuke last week from Erdoğan, who said without directly naming the former deputy prime minister that his success during the AKP years had only come thanks to input from Erdoğan himself.

Opposition figures have also questioned why Babacan remained silent for years while he was still a member of a ruling party that was rowing back its earlier liberalising reforms, a subject that Özdemir asked the former deputy prime minister to explain.

Babacan said he had attempted to voice criticisms from within the party but had left once he realised it would be impossible to solve the problems of a party whose internal structures and institutions had eroded.

He added that there had been a similar erosion of the state’s institutions under the AKP’s rule, and this had brought deep problems to the country’s economy which have been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our issues were huge before, and now we are living through the impact of the pandemic,” Babacan said, pointing to high unemployment and youth unemployment figures that are on their way even higher since Turkey confirmed its first case of the coronavirus in March.

“I do not see a possibility for Turkey to get better. Neither does my team. So, we have launched a new effort,” he said.

To improve the Turkish economy, the government would have to re-establish trust first, making sure that political power stays out of matters of law, said Babacan.

Rebuilding trust would also be a significant step toward securing the return of many highly qualified workers who have fled the country in recent years, he said.  

The DEVA leader also touched on the government’s dismissal of mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whom it has replaced with government appointees.

The government has accused the HDP of ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for decades. Lawmakers and mayors from the HDP as well as thousands of members have faced trial over alleged links to the PKK, which Turkey, the European Union and the United States list as a terrorist organisation.

While Babacan condemned the PKK’s use of violence, he told Özdemir the dismissal of HDP mayors without due process could erode people’s faith in elections.

“And that would, God forbid, drag the country into a wholly different arena,” he said.

Instead, Babacan said he hoped that the recently elected HDP co-chair Mithat Sancar would help to make the HDP a “party for Turkey,” using a phrase commonly used in Turkish politics to refer to policies less focused on ethnicity and that have a broad appeal across the country.