Veteran Turkish politician Meral Aksener has stolen the spotlight as the country gears up for the 2019 presidential elections. Dubbed the Iron Lady, after former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Aksener rose to prominence in 2016 after her dispute with Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party. Observers also took noted of the “she-wolf” when she openly opposed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s referendum to transform Turkey into a presidential system.
Born to Greek immigrants in Izmet northwest of Istanbul in 1956, Aksener pursued a degree in History at Istanbul University. She then earned a PhD in the same field from Marmara University, Erdogan’s alma mater.
She pursued a career in academics before deciding in 1994 to try her hand at politics. She ran for parliament in 1995 and won a seat in one of the Istanbul provinces, representing the conservative True Path Party. Under the term of late Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, Aksener was appointed Interior Minister in 1996 and 1997, making her the first woman in her country to assume this position.
During her stint in office, she displayed a noticeable hard line in confronting the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), as well as the military command that had enjoyed great political power in Turkey. She openly declared her opposition to military intervention in politics, which eventually cost her position as minister when the army forced the government out of office in the “white” or “postmodern” coup of 1997.
Aksener was reelected to parliament in 1999, gaining prominence among right-wing parties. She eventually joined Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which he established with former President Abdullah Gul and others. She however quit after four months when she realized that the party offered nothing new in its proposals and therefore did not differ from any of the previous Islamic parties in the country.
In 2007, Aksener joined Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party because it suited her nationalist ideals. She remained in the party until her fallout with Bahceli in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup against the government. Bahceli chose to follow Erdogan’s lead and support Turkey’s transformation into a presidential system, putting him at odds with Aksener.
She consequently announced her defection from the party, along with a number of other members, launching a campaign against Erdogan’s referendum on amending the constitution to introduce the presidential system.
Her rift with Bahceli deepened when she attempted in 2016 to hold a general assembly for the Nationalist Movement Party in order to change its leadership. The meeting was set to be held at an Ankara hotel, but police cordoned off the area, barring the gatherers from meeting. This was interpreted at the time as a move by Erdogan to protect his new “ally” Bahceli.
Aksener however seized the opportunity and played the development in her favor when she climbed up on one of the buses that was being used for the meeting and delivered a speech to her supporters outside the hotel. Her speech marked the beginning a new phase of her political career and paved the way for her establishment on October 25 of the Good Party. She wanted from this party to be an actual expression of the right-wing opposition and not just a passive voice that goes with all of Erdogan’s stances and actions. Her party included four lawmakers of the Nationalist Movement Party and a lawmaker from the Republican People's Party, the country’s largest opposition party.
The Good Party held its first general conference at Istanbul’s Nazım Hikmet Cultural Center, which is affiliated with the Republican People's Party, after hotels and assembly halls in Ankara refused to host the meeting because they feared appearing as advocates of Aksener’s party.
Members of the audience chanted during the conference “Miral for prime minister” in what was seen as support from among her party for her to run for president in 2019. Observers saw the occasion as a challenge by Aksener to Erdogan, saying that she could be a threat to the current president because they both share the same popular base of conservatives and nationalists.
Confirming her ability to breach Erdogan’s popular base, Aksener embarked on various campaigns throughout Turkey in what was interpreted as an attempt to garner supporters from not only right-wing groups, but other segments as well. In her speech during the declaration of the Good Party, she cited many former Turkish leaders starting with founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, secular former PM Bülent Ecevit and Islamist Erbakan to appeal to as many voters as possible.
She stressed during her speech that “Turkey and the Turkish people had grown tired. The state has been eaten up and there can be no solution but changing all of the political environment.” Aksener underlined the importance of the rule of law, protecting the institutions and respecting legal proceedings. She attacked Erdogan, saying that he only views the world in black and white.
“I on the other hand do not see the law as being either right or wrong. I believe in the law and its sovereignty,” she declared.
She also appealed to female voters by pointing out that Erdogan sought to “keep us at home.”
Aksener’s hardline right-wing roots appear to be the main negative factors that can limit her popularity among Kurdish and minority voters. She herself had acknowledged this, remarking that her party is not based on ethnic ground, but the “national identity.”
She had previously rejected peace negotiations past governments had carried out with the PKK, saying that the law gave enough guarantees to ensure the rights and needs of minorities in Turkey. She however did oppose the arrest of MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, noting that it was an attempt by Erdogan to intimidate the Kurds ahead of the presidential referendum. The government had cracked down on the party members in wake of the 2016 failed coup.
Aksener herself was not spared intimidation and she came in 2016 under a fierce pro-government campaign that tackled her personal life after she made moves to oust Bahceli from the presidency of the Nationalist Movement Party.
“The coordinated campaign that has been ongoing since April 2016 is aimed at forcing me to back down, but they have failed,” she declared.
At any rate, observers see Aksener as an attractive candidate to many Turkish voters because she is not affiliated to Islamic political groups, even though she often describes herself as a “Muslim who respects the religion.” This puts her at odds with the leftist secular opposition, which Erdogan had succeeded in stifling. She is also seen as an acceptable option for the conservatives, who do not want to go so far in their opposition as to vote for the left. Secularists may meanwhile view her as an acceptable and less dangerous substitute to Erdogan. Moreover, she will appeal to female voters, whose rights she has advocated.