Turkey’s ‘Iron Lady’ Meral Aksener is proving that democracy in the country is still alive and kicking
By Demir Murat Seyrek and Amanda Paul
Turkey’s political spectrum is set to be shaken-up with the launch of a new centrist party, İyi Party, led by Turkey’s “Iron-Lady”, Meral Aksener. This event’s political resonance is two-fold. First, it is evidence that despite the difficult political environment, Turkish democracy is alive and kicking. Second, the party has the potential to challenge the rule of President Erdogan.
For the past 15 years, Turkey has witnessed a drought of effective opposition parties. For many, the new party is poised to become the long-awaited alternative to the AKP. Centre-right political parties are nothing new. Successive policy failures in the 1990s, however, have wiped them off the political map and left the path clear for AKP domination on the right side of the political spectrum. Today, the big difference is Aksener’s popularity, fuelled by her political success stories and her ability to effectively engage and motivate people. In April 2017, without the backing of any political party, she has emerged as a leading figure of the “no campaign” against the constitutional referendum.
Aksener, aged 61 and an active defender of women’s rights and gender equality, is a decisive and courageous politician. As a realist who believes in the fundamental principles of modern Turkey including secularism, she sees the westernisation of the country as a natural path. Aksener can also meet the expectations of the conservative electorate with her mild nationalist rhetoric and her respect for conservative values. She is seeking to gather conservatives, nationalists, secular centre-right voters and liberals around the political centre.
Entering Turkish politics in 1995 with the centre right True Path Party of Tansu Ciller, Aksener was the first woman to serve as interior minister in Turkey. In 1997, her pro-democracy stance against the Turkish military propelled her as a widely respected political figure across party lines. She joined the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in 2007. When MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli progressively joined forces with the AKP, Aksener challenged his decisions with the support of many MHP affiliates. The idea of a new party emerged when Aksener failed to take over the MHP leadership in 2016 following a series of controversial court decisions.
The new party will be composed of representatives coming from different segments of Turkish society. Among the founders are leading secular figures such as Ali Türkşen alongside young and successful tech leaders such as Google’s Advertising Research Lead, Taylan Yildiz. Women and young people are also expected to play key roles within the party. Easing tensions in both domestic and foreign affairs will be a priority.
Success will hinge on several key parameters. First, Aksener’s faculty to charm disaffected AKP voters looking for new alternatives. Second, her capacity to offer concrete solutions to Turkey’s mounting problems. Third, her ability to attract both secular central right voters and moderate conservatives in big cities as well as nationalist-conservatives in Anatolia. This will be an intricate balancing act. She will need to demonstrate skilfulness in leading a political structure that will be a melting pot of different views.
If she carries through these tasks, however, Aksener will embody a rare threat to the AKP’s rule since she will be appealing to the same electoral constituencies. For that reason, her path to victory will be beset with hurdles. First and foremost, communicating her programme and solutions will represent a major challenge. Restrictions on the freedom of the press means the party will receive limited media exposure, except for alternative broadcasters and online platforms. Moreover, Aksener will have to continue to swat away efforts by the pro-AKP media to tarnish her image and that of party affiliates. Political pressure will come in the way of the expansion of her party throughout Turkey. She will be harassed with logistical and administrative constraints. One cannot rule out that the party will never make it to 2019, with one reason or another being invented to shut it down.
The year 2019 will be an important time for voting in Turkey with local, parliamentary and presidential elections. These ballots are already high on the agenda. Re-election is crucial step for President Erdogan to realise his dream of becoming the first President under the new constitution and holding power during the celebration of the Republic’s centenary in 2023. Erdogan is already working to achieve this through major changes within the AKP. Despite his masterful command of political strategies, he knows that this time success may not be a walk in the park. While in the past 42% to 43% of the votes were enough to rule the country, the new system imposes an absolute majority.
So, despite the challenges, prudent optimism is warranted. Even though Aksener has had limited media exposure, her name already pops up in everyday conversations. Many Turks are pinning their hopes on her. A woman leader challenging Erdogan is once again showing that Turkey is full of surprises and its democracy is far from dead.
Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek is a Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy. Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre
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