Two senior figures in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party are planning to launch a rival political group this year, people familiar with the matter said, a move that could further erode support for the country’s long-time leader on the heels of a stinging electoral defeat in İstanbul, Reuters reported on Thursday.
Behind the breakaway plans are former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gül, both founding members of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), according to two political advisers.
Sunday’s re-run mayoral election delivered the second loss in recent months for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s largest city, a bitter setback for the president who has ruled for 16 years. It has also emboldened critics within his own party who have for years hinted at plans to form a rival party because of dissatisfaction over Erdoğan’s increasing powers over the party and government.
With economic recession, unemployment and inflation hurting Turkish voters and eating into the AKP’s support base, any further erosion — even just a few percentage points of voter support – could be deeply damaging for the party, which already relies on an alliance with nationalists for its parliamentary majority.
“Babacan and Gül will most likely form the party in the fall,” said one of the advisers, who is close to Babacan.
The new party’s policies would mirror the early years of the AKP, the adviser added. When the AKP was launched in 2001, it blended an Islamist-rooted outlook with a pro-Western, democratic and liberal market approach that enjoyed broad popular backing.
The two men have been considering establishing the party for around six months, but the process has been given momentum by the AKP’s loss of Turkey’s main cities in the March 31 municipal elections, said the other adviser, who is familiar with the plans for the new party.
He did not say how the party would be funded but said the preparation so far had included meetings with current AKP parliamentarians, other politicians and academics.
The politicians haven’t publicly commented on the plans, but Gül broke ranks with the AKP last month to signal his discontent at a decision to annul the initial opposition victory in İstanbul after a series of appeals from Erdoğan’s party.
In a tweet he compared the decision to re-run the election to a 2007 Constitutional Court ruling raising the number of parliamentarians required to approve a new president — which was viewed as an attempt to obstruct his path to the presidency.
Babacan served as economy and foreign minister in the first years of AKP government before becoming deputy prime minister, a role he held from 2009 to 2015. Gül was president from 2007 until 2014, when then-Prime Minister Erdoğan moved to the presidency.
An AKP official who asked not to be named said the party was aware of the plan to launch a rival group.
“Babacan is a strong and respected figure. Of course, the AKP will be affected by the new party, but we are able to lose some AKP supporters like some other parties,” the official said.
He added that the party must accept responsibility for the election results. “We need to return to a policy where we can govern the state, but still be with the people.”
There are many precedents for new parties in Turkey, including two years ago when disgruntled members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) broke away to form the İyi (Good) Party. It won 10 percent of the vote in last year’s parliamentary election.
The adviser close to Babacan said there was support from AKP members of parliament for the breakaway group, without specifying how many.
He added that he expected “a few surprising important supporters” but didn’t provide names.
If a new party is established, it could lead to more resignations and defections from the AKP, breaking its hold over a large swathe of pious and conservative voters, said Galip Dalay, a visiting scholar at Oxford University.
“The AKP’s monopoly over the conservative sector of society will be broken,” he said.
One prominent AKP figure, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been openly critical of the party, slamming government economic policies, media restrictions and the damage he said had been inflicted on Turkish institutions.
A source close to Davutoğlu said he was planning a ‘new step’ but provided no details beyond saying the politician did not plan to join Gül and Babacan for now.
Erdoğan has recovered from setbacks before. In June 2015 his party failed to win an outright parliamentary majority, leading to months of stalemate before it regained a majority in another election just five months later.
A relentless and driven campaigner, he has been at the heart of more than a dozen successful elections. But AKP officials have privately criticized the way the party approached both the March 31 and June 23 elections.
Erdoğan campaigned for weeks ahead of the March local elections, delivering up to eight combative speeches a day. He accused opponents, including the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), of links to terrorism and said the vote was a matter of survival.
The HDP denies any links to terrorism.
That failed to stop the AKP losing in the capital Ankara and İstanbul during the countrywide local elections in March, leading some senior party members to say that the tone of the campaign had put off many voters who were more concerned with the cost of living and supply of local services.
Ahead of Sunday’s re-run vote in İstanbul, the AKP tried to win over Kurdish voters with a less confrontational campaign, only to find that the change of tack had angered some supporters of its nationalist ally, the MHP.
The AKP’s conflicting efforts to win over mutually hostile Kurdish and nationalist Turkish voters partly reflect Erdoğan’s narrowing political options after a decade and a half in power.
Erdoğan, speaking to party members in parliament on Tuesday, defended his government’s record and said the AKP had helped Turkey to “rise and grow” — a reference to years of economic dynamism before last year’s financial crisis and recession.
“We will evaluate why we were unable to win the June 23 İstanbul elections. We will identify shortcomings … and aim to amend them,” he said. “We will continue to work to be worthy of our people’s love and respect.”