Defying a bleak status quo, political challenger Ali Babacan promises to bring “freedom of thought” back to Turkey – if his party is able to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking in a television interview to CNN Turk’s Cuneyt Ozdemir, Babacan came to the defense of press freedom and denounced “thought crimes” that have landed thousands in jail when asked what his first step would be if he wins an election.
“Freeing those imprisoned for thought crimes will be our first act on the first day if we are elected to Parliament,” said Babacan, founder of the Remedy Party and originally a founder and close ally to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“One of the most important problems of the country is freedom,” Babacan said, adding that “only the crime of thought is required” to land a person in jail.
Babacan once held leading positions in Erdogan’s cabinet throughout his meteoric rise to power, and was largely credited for leading Turkey through a period of economic boom in its first decade.
He quit the AKP in 2019, citing “deep differences” with the party and criticizing the “one-man rule” culture that has befallen the country under Erdogan’s 18-year rule. In March of this year, Babacan joined a group of defectors from the AKP to form his own political party, called “DEVA,” or Remedy Party.
Babacan represents a moderate, center-right alternative to AKP voters worried about the direction the ruling party has taken Turkey in, with Erdogan at the helm now 18 years. While the AKP originally led Turkey through a period of growth that US magazine The Economist dubbed an “economic miracle,” its record on human rights has wavered. Hundreds of dissidents, including politicians, activists, civil society members, and journalists have been jailed in the government’s crackdown on enemies of the state.
Babacan’s comments come as Amnesty International started a campaign to urge Turkey’s Justice Ministry to release journalists, opposition politicians and activists from prison amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though Turkey recently gave respite to thousands by clearing its prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19, those jailed for crimes of a political nature were specifically not made eligible for early release under the new measures — a move Human Rights Watch denounced as “politically motivated.”
“Countless people are arbitrarily imprisoned serving lengthy sentences under anti-terrorism laws despite absence of evidence that they supported violence,” read Amnesty’s appeal to Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül in an open letter published Monday.
Elections in Turkey are not scheduled in 2023 — although perennial rumors wax and wane that the government could call snap elections in an attempt to strengthen its majority.
Though elections are a long way off, Babacan is taking his time campaigning to set himself up as a challenger to Erdogan, and taking the opportunity to criticize. Speaking to CNN Turk on “those who find themselves imprisoned solely for crimes of thought,” Babacan said: “let them go free, and others will see and start thinking freely, too.”
Adding a snap of his fingers, “all it takes is the political will,” said Babacan.