There’s a new name on Turkey’s political stage: Meral Aksener. Although she has spent decades in and out of Turkish politics, in the past year she has become a household name, with many questioning whether her brash and bold style could threaten President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on power. But who is she?
Born in 1956 to a family descended from Greek immigrants, Aksener initially pursued a career as an academic, rising to the head of her university’s history department before quitting in 1994 to enter politics. Elected into the secular conservative True Path party, she saw firsthand the upheaval and violence that marked Turkish politics in the 1990s. Advancing quickly to the post of interior minister in the centre-right Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan, Aksener’s time in the cabinet was cut short by the so-called ‘post-modern coup’ in 1997.
Her fierce resistance to the military putsch marked her out as unafraid to challenge even the most powerful forces in Turkey, a trait that still characterizes her political stance today. Nicknamed ‘Asena’ – the she-wolf of Turkish mythology – by her supporters in Turkey’s nationalist bloc, for whom the wolf holds particular symbolic significance, Aksener is not one to shy away from a fight.
It has been more than 80 years since Turkish women have been allowed to enter parliament, but they are vastly underrepresented among the country’s lawmakers. Tansu Ciller was made prime minister in 1993, but she is an exception and the top tier of politics has always been male-dominated; local politics is also male-heavy but easier for women to penetrate. For a country with such a macho political sphere and, since Erdogan’s rise, a penchant for strong-man politics, Aksener’s rise to prominence is all the more remarkable.
Although ousted from the cabinet, married mother-of-one Aksener remained in parliament, and in 2007, when the nationalist Milli Harket Partisi, or MHP, was rebranded by its elderly leader Devlet Bahceli, Aksener rejoined the political fray and transferred her parliamentary allegiance to the party. Winning re-election in 2011 for the MHP, her years in parliament have been free of scandal as her status in the party has slowly grown, especially when she became the parliament’s deputy speaker.
From 2015, Aksener started to make her opposition to Bahceli’s acquiescence to Erdogan known, protesting the MHP’s drift away from the party’s strict Kemalist founding principles. This spat came to a head in 2016 when her vocal questioning of Bahceli’s leadership saw her kicked out of the MHP.
But it was her opposition to Erdogan’s 2017 constitutional referendum that really brought her into the public eye. Bahceli came out in support of Erdogan’s ‘Yes’ campaign, after an alleged deal for a top cabinet position under the new presidential system. Arguing for a return to the rule of law, parliamentary rule and Turkey’s republican roots, Aksener’s forthright position and defiant speeches, as well as the fact that she is one of Turkey’s only prominent female politicians, has won her broad public attention.
A staunch nationalist, her politics are unapologetically conservative, hawkish towards the Kurdish insurgency and wary of Turkey’s more assertive regional position. However, while she has been compared to France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, she rejects accusations of racist or ethnic politics, instead trumpeting a shared national pride as her true aim.
As a self-declared pious Muslim, in speeches she has appealed to religiously minded Turks along-side their more secularist compatriots, calling for unity in a country that appears to be growing ever more polarized. Erdogan’s message of unity is similar, and as Aksener attempts to woo the same pro-business, nationalist and religious voters as his AKP party, a showdown with the president seems likely. Like the main opposition party, the CHP, her rhetoric remains ardently supportive of the rule of law, in contrast to Erdogan’s emotive crackdown on anyone he considers a threat. However, while the CHP has been unable to win support outside the urban, secular-minded class that has always been its main voter base, Aksener’s politics offers a viable threat to Erdogan’s cushion of political support.
Her current rise can be put down to the turmoil and disillusionment bred by Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkish society following last year’s coup attempt. Given the political threat she may pose to the AKP’s dominance, Aksener is a juicy target for the current trend of political oppression. However, she has so far escaped official allegations of collusion with the Gülenist movement, which is accused of being behind the coup attempt.
During the referendum campaign, her grassroots support in the party became clear, with the MHP youth wing, the infamous Grey Wolves, emerging as one of her most strident backers. When she quit the party in 2016, some 210 other high-ranking party members followed her, laying the foundations for the next step of her career.
On 25 October 2017, under a banner of a rising sun and the slogan ‘Turkey will be good’, Aksener launched the Iyi (‘good’) Party and promised political change after years of creeping authoritarianism.
The centre-right party has already attracted the backing of five sitting lawmakers and lists pluralism, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and nationalism as its key values, surely setting the party on a collision course with Erdogan, who has a penchant for emergency rule. Ümit Özdağ, one of Aksener’s colleagues, has spoken of the party’s desire to stay loyal to Turkey’s secularism but to unite the country’s patriots on both sides of the political spectrum.
Yet Aksener’s ties to the Grey Wolves have raised fears about the path her party will take. The Grey Wolves has a violent history in Turkey, and at times in the 1970s and ’80s resembled a paramilitary group. Although they have remodelled themselves in recent years, at the Iyi Party’s launch event, dozens of attendees proudly made the Wolves’ hand symbol in the crowd. Such ultranationalist displays have been common at Aksener’s rallies, and only time will tell how far she will have to bow to the more extreme demographic of her support base.
“Our party will be born as the party of Turkey,” she said at a meeting in September 2017, but this is rhetoric common to more than one party in the Turkish political spectrum. Aksener’s new popularity is certainly a threat to Erdogan’s working-class support base, and she has hinted that she may run against him for the Turkish presidency, but unless she can convert public attention into votes in the 2019 elections, her party could end up being good but not good enough.