Asharq Al-Awsat Exclusive - Meral Aksener: Turkey’s Iron Lady Threatening Erdogan’s Control

Turkey's 'Iron Lady' Meral Aksener. (AFP)
Turkey's 'Iron Lady' Meral Aksener. (AFP)

Asharq Al-Awsat Exclusive - Meral Aksener: Turkey’s Iron Lady Threatening Erdogan’s Control

Turkey's 'Iron Lady' Meral Aksener. (AFP)
Turkey's 'Iron Lady' Meral Aksener. (AFP)

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.

Biden's Withdrawal Injects Uncertainty Into Wars, Trade Disputes and Other Foreign Policy Challenges

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Biden's Withdrawal Injects Uncertainty Into Wars, Trade Disputes and Other Foreign Policy Challenges

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Joe Biden's withdrawal from the US presidential race injects greater uncertainty into the world at a time when Western leaders are grappling with wars in Ukraine and Gaza, a more assertive China in Asia and the rise of the far-right in Europe.
During a five-decade career in politics, Biden developed extensive personal relationships with multiple foreign leaders that none of the potential replacements on the Democratic ticket can match. After his announcement, messages of support and gratitude for his years of service poured in from near and far, said The Associated Press.
The scope of foreign policy challenges facing the next US president makes clear how consequential what happens in Washington is for the rest of the planet. Here's a look at some of them.
ISRAEL With Vice President Kamala Harris being eyed as a potential replacement for Biden, Israelis on Sunday scrambled to understand what her candidacy would mean for their country as it confronts increasing global isolation over its military campaign against Hamas.
Israel’s left-wing Haaretz daily newspaper ran a story scrutinizing Harris’ record of support for Israel, pointing to her reputation as Biden’s “bad cop" who has vocally admonished Israel for its offensive in Gaza. In recent months, she has gone further than Biden in calling for a cease-fire, denouncing Israel's invasion of Rafah and expressing horror over the civilian death toll in Gaza.
“With Biden leaving, Israel has lost perhaps the last Zionist president,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “A new Democratic candidate will upend the dynamic.”
Biden's staunch defense of Israel since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack has its roots in his half-century of support for the country as a senator, vice president, then president. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant thanked Biden for his “unwavering support of Israel over the years.”
“Your steadfast backing, especially during the war, has been invaluable,” Gallant wrote on X.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog praised Biden as a “symbol of the unbreakable bond between our two peoples" and a “true ally of the Jewish people.” There was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ally of former President Donald Trump whose history of cordial relations with Biden has come under strain during the Israel-Hamas war.
UKRAINE Any Democratic candidate would likely continue Biden’s legacy of staunch military support for Ukraine. But frustration with the Biden administration has grown in Ukraine and Europe over the slow pace of US aid and restrictions on the use of Western weapons.
“Most Europeans realize that Ukraine is increasingly going to be their burden,” said Sudha David-Wilp, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a research institute. “Everyone is trying to get ready for all the possible outcomes.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on X that he respected the “tough but strong decision” by Biden to drop out of the campaign, and he thanked Biden for his help “in preventing (Russian President Vladimir) Putin from occupying our country.”
Trump has promised to end Russia's war on Ukraine in one day if he is elected — a prospect that has raised fears in Ukraine that Russia might be allowed to keep the territory it occupies.
Trump's vice presidential pick, Ohio Sen. JD Vance, is among Congress’ most vocal opponents of US aid for Ukraine and has further raised the stakes for Kyiv.
Russia, meanwhile, dismissed the importance of the race, insisting that no matter what happened, Moscow would press on in Ukraine.
“We need to pay attention,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by a pro-Russian tabloid. “We need to watch what will happen and do our own thing."
CHINA In recent months, both Biden and Trump have tried to show voters who can best stand up to Beijing’s growing military strength and belligerence and protect US businesses and workers from low-priced Chinese imports. Biden has hiked tariffs on electric vehicles from China, and Trump has promised to implement tariffs of 60% on all Chinese products.
Trump’s “America First” doctrine exacerbated tensions with Beijing. But disputes with the geopolitical rival and economic colossus over wars, trade, technology and security continued into Biden's term.
China's official reaction to the US presidential race has been careful. The official Xinhua news agency treated the story of Biden’s decision as relatively minor. The editor of the party-run Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, downplayed the impact of Biden's withdrawal.
“Whoever becomes the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party may be the same," he wrote on X. “Voters are divided into two groups, Trump voters and Trump haters.”
IRAN With Iran's proxies across the Middle East increasingly entangled in the Israel-Hamas war, the US confronts a region in disarray.
Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis struck Tel Aviv for the first time last week, prompting retaliatory Israeli strikes inside war-torn Yemen. Simmering tensions and cross-border attacks between Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group and the Israeli military have raised fears of an all-out regional conflagration.
Hamas, which also receives support from Iran, continues to fight Israel even nine months into a war that has killed 38,000 Palestinians and displaced over 80% of Gaza's population.
The US and its allies have accused Iran of expanding its nuclear program and enriching uranium to an unprecedented 60% level, near-weapons-grade levels.
After then-President Trump in 2018 withdrew from Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers, Biden said he wanted to reverse his predecessor's hawkish anti-Iran stance. But the Biden administration has maintained severe economic sanctions against Iran and overseen failed attempts to renegotiate the agreement.
The sudden death of Ebrahim Raisi — the supreme leader's hard-line protege — in a helicopter crash vaulted a new reformist to the presidency in Iran, generating new opportunities and risks. Masoud Pezeshkian has said he wants to help Iran open up to the world but has maintained a defiant tone against the US.
EUROPE AND NATO Many Europeans were happy to see Trump go after his years of disparaging the European Union and undermining NATO. Trump's seemingly dismissive attitude toward European allies in last month's presidential debate did nothing to assuage those concerns.
Biden, on the other hand, has supported close American relations with bloc leaders.
That closeness was on stark display after Biden's decision to bow out of the race. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called his choice “probably the most difficult one in your life.” The newly installed British prime minister, Keir Starmer, said he respected Biden’s “decision based on what he believes is in the best interests of the American people.”
There was also an outpouring of affection from Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris, who called Biden a “proud American with an Irish soul."
The question of whether NATO can maintain its momentum in supporting Ukraine and checking the ambitions of other authoritarian states hangs in the balance of this presidential election, analysts say.
“They don't want to see Donald Trump as president. So there's quite a bit of relief but also quite a bit of nervousness" about Biden's decision to drop out, said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Like many in the United States, but perhaps more so, they are really quite confused.”
MEXICO The close relationship between Mexico and the US has been marked in recent years by disagreements over trade, energy and climate change. Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in 2018, both countries have found common ground on the issue of migration – with Mexico making it more difficult for migrants to cross its country to the US border and the US not pressing on other issues.
The López Obrador administration kept that policy while Trump was president and continued it into Biden's term.
On Friday, Mexico’s president called Trump “a friend” and said he would write to him to warn him against pledging to close the border or blaming migrants for bringing drugs into the United States.
“I am going to prove to him that migrants don’t carry drugs to the United States,” he said, adding that “closing the border won’t solve anything, and anyway, it can’t be done.”