Former Turkish Prime Minister Forms Party in Challenge to Erdogan

Former Turkish Prime Minister Forms Party in Challenge to Erdogan

ANKARA, Turkey — A former prime minister and erstwhile ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that he was creating a new political party, a challenge that could splinter the governing party and fatally damage the Turkish leader’s chances for re-election.

Ahmet Davutoglu, once Mr. Erdogan’s closest ally, served under him as foreign minister and then prime minister until 2016. His break with the Turkish president represents a direct challenge as Mr. Davutoglu pledges a return to the original principles and ideals of their old party.

To the cheers and whistles of a large crowd of supporters in a hotel ballroom in Ankara, the capital, Mr. Davutoglu unveiled his Future Party, announcing “the future is our nation’s, the future is Turkey.”

He told his supporters to focus not on the pain of past divisions, but on uniting and securing rights for all in the future.

A second close ally and former minister, Ali Babacan, has also resigned from Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., and is preparing to announce his own new party within weeks, his supporters say.

The two defections will not immediately threaten Mr. Erdogan, since he has amassed enormous personal power with the country’s transition last year to a presidential system. His current term runs to 2023.

But the moves represent the first major break within the A.K.P. and could undermine Mr. Erdogan’s prospects for retaining power.

“They will negatively affect the A.K.P.,” said Ali Bayramoglu, an academic and columnist with close ties to the party.

The two challengers could cause a realignment of the center-right conservative vote that has been loyal to Mr. Erdogan, he added.

They will join an array of opposition parties whose tactical alliance succeeded in defeating Mr. Erdogan’s supporters in five of Turkey’s largest cities in local elections earlier this year, including Ankara and the country’s largest metropolis, Istanbul. His opponents have declared the loss of Istanbul, Mr. Erdogan’s home city and political base, to be the beginning of the end of his 18-year dominance of Turkish politics.

Mr. Erdogan has seen his popularity slide to its lowest level in three years, with a currency crash and economic recession that hit 18 months ago testing his leadership. One recent independent poll showed his popularity dropping to 33 percent from 41 percent in July 2018, a level that could see him struggle to secure the majority vote needed for re-election to the presidency, despite his alliance with the National Movement Party.

The Turkish Army’s incursion into Syria in October, which was popular at home, gave Mr. Erdogan a temporary boost in the polls, but his ratings fell again as Turks suffered economic hardship and resentment grew over growing economic inequality.

In announcing the new party Friday, Mr Davutoglu offered a reversal of much of Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule, calling for a return to a parliamentary system, the rule of law and freedom of expression.

Mr. Davutoglu, 60, is an academic who has been an influential ideologue within the A.K.P. and has a significant following around the country. Sidelined by Mr. Erdogan in 2016, he had nevertheless remained loyal to the A.K.P., of which he was a founding member, until June of this year, when he broke publicly with Mr. Erdogan over his handling of the Istanbul election.

After Mr. Erdogan’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul was defeated in March and he tried to have the vote annulled, Mr. Davutoglu published a devastating critique of Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, assailing his handling of the economy, his amassing of powers under the new presidential system and what he described as a takeover of the party by a narrow clique of self-serving actors.

Mr. Babacan, 52, is seen as a successful former finance minister and deputy prime minister who oversaw the economic boom of the early Erdogan years. He is casting himself as the steady pair of hands that can guide Turkey out of its economic crisis, and he has been careful to avoid direct criticism of Mr. Erdogan.

Mr. Davutoglu and Mr. Babacan are rivals whose past differences make a joint party impossible, but their efforts are being closely watched to see if they draw support from Mr. Erdogan and tip the balance toward the opposition. Both men aspire to inherit the conservative, religious A.K.P. constituency that Mr. Erdogan has successfully harnessed to stay in power.

In the past, Mr. Erdogan has derided and cajoled those who have tried to break away from the A.K.P. But in a sign of how seriously he regards the latest challenge, he has gone on the offensive, branding the two men as traitors and calling Mr. Davutoglu a swindler over a recent property scandal.

In a weekend speech to a gathering of party officials, Mr. Erdogan accused Mr. Davutoglu, when he was prime minister, of transferring ownership of public land worth more than $400 million to City University, a private college he had founded.

The university used the land as security for a loan from a state bank, Halkbank, but failed to repay the loan, which Mr. Erdogan said amounted to $70 million.

“They are trying to swindle Halkbank,” Mr. Erdogan said, including Mr. Babacan and another former minister in his accusation. “Where is your honesty?”

Mr. Davutoglu hit back by calling on Mr. Erdogan and other public officials to reveal their personal assets.

“The only accusation against me during my term as prime minister is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law,” Mr. Davutoglu said.

The timing of the City University revelations was widely perceived as meant to hurt Mr. Davutoglu as he prepared his political challenge. In Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey, the courts and public banks are perceived to be closely controlled by the presidency.

Yet Mr. Erdogan has also been damaged by the scandal, since it stems from a period when they were all in government together, political analysts said.

Despite the defections, Mr. Erdogan remains the most popular politician in Turkey. He has deftly stirred right-wing, nationalist emotions that run deep, with militaristic ventures in Syria and elsewhere, his calls to restore Turkey to greatness and his frequent challenges to Western powers, said Mr. Bayramoglu, the academic with ties to the A.K.P.

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