Nobody in their right mind can think that being an opposition party in an autocratic environment is easy. However, one cannot learn how to swim without jumping in the water. Ali Babacan's party DEVA seems to be enjoying the dry land, not taking any risks, at a time when citizens are expecting brave and wise leadership.
The partial lockdown in Turkey caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has so far been a litmus test for political parties and new political movements in the country. As the most active opposition party, the CHP has been running a lot of the show through the municipalities it is administering. As the AKP government asked people to donate money to help fight the virus, the CHP put most of Turkey’s biggest cities on alert to provide help, mobilizing municipalities to deliver food, sanitary masks, and postpone the collection of utility bills.
This kind of energized CHP directly countered the last 20 years of political Islam’s stereotypical criticism of CHP opposition as being strong on words but weak on deeds, not adding real value to anything. Thus, for a long time, the CHP has been painted as a party of loud mouths. There may have been some truth to this. Many years of being out of power produced an inferiority complex within the CHP, leaving party members and voters without hope that they can change things and the energy to do so. With virtually no power in their hands, CHP had been left without much to do.
Following multiple victories in local elections last year, the CHP finally put themselves in the position to prove that they are ready and able to govern.
The conservative right on the other hand not only lost major municipalities, but began fragmenting into smaller parties that looked for opportunities mainly among dissatisfied AKP voters. In particular, two new parties emerged from the AKP, one led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and the other by former Finance Minister Ali Babacan. In this way, after a long time, the AKP’s political Islam has become tested by internal opposition.
Davutoğlu has never been a widely popular figure: a rigid ideologue and a bit self-righteous at times, he is largely recognized as the architect of Turkey’s failed foreign policy. Babacan, on the other hand, is somewhat a different case: a technocrat, respected in the international circles, with an easy-going personality, and an admirable record in leading Turkey’s finances. Coming from an Islamist background, but displaying liberal tendencies, Babacan had been seen as a potential political threat to AKP.
After taking Babacan and his team almost a year to officially form the DEVA Party (a length of time that did not create good optics for someone wanting to be seen as a competent and efficient technocrat), the party was finally formed at the very beginning of Turkey’s struggle with the COVID-19 epidemic. The meaning of the word “deva” in Farsi and Turkish is “cure”, so—symbolically at least—part of the public expected Babacan and his group to be the political refreshment which would offer the policy remedies for the dire situation Turkey has found itself in. According to unofficial accounts of some of the founders of DEVA, the reason why it took so long for the party to be formed was the supposed “construction of a wholly new democratic discourse that would include everyone in Turkey’s diverse society”. By being launched as a “cure” at the beginning of a massive crisis, DEVA had a chance to position themselves as a policy pill against the flaws and incompetence of the existing one-man regime.
However, the real political “cure” cannot be a mere public relations gimmick in the wake of a grave danger, such as the COVID-19 epidemic. Quickly after the announcement of the party, Babacan practically disappeared from the public eye, and not a single idea or policy has been heard from this new perceived agent of change in the political spectrum. Other prominent names in the party remained silent as well. DEVA started resembling a political “placebo” rather than a cure for Turkey. The party has become a silent observer of the troubling situation the country is in.
Nobody in their right mind can think that being an opposition party in an autocratic environment is easy, especially when society is as deeply fragmented and internally antagonistic as Turkey is today. However, one cannot learn how to swim without jumping in the water. DEVA seems to be enjoying the dry land, not taking any risks, at a time when citizens are expecting brave and wise leadership.
It has been proven many times in the past that one cannot hope to win votes in turbulent times by refusing to take policy risks and display political courage. One must enter the arena with sound ideas and a will to fight, particularly during the challenging times we are all experiencing. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic could open a door for the new wave of liberal political Islam in Turkey led by DEVA, or it can confirm that religious conservatism has virtually no potency without the backing of the state apparatus.