Meral Akşener is currently being portrayed by the international media as the most legitimate alternative to stand against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The political momentum that Akşener has gained derives from the environment that Erdoğan is creating – i.e. he has polarised Turkish society, is labelled a dictator and an enemy of the West (thereby placing doubt in Turkey’s alliance with NATO and negotiations with the European Union), and he is threatening the secular nature of the Turkish state.
Arguably, for the West at least, Akşener is seen as an alternative to Erdoğan not because of her political agenda, but because of the authoritarian path he has taken. Moreover, as a woman in Turkish politics, Akşener is a rarity, and is her softer image is therefore open for public relations manipulation. However, she is not proposing any new political platform – a factor, if left unaddressed, will be the cause of her downfall. In Turkey, successful politicians have been able to mould an image of a ‘cult leaders’, mastered by President Erdoğan.
Besides lacking a clear political agenda, any form of political transition in the current Turkish environment seems unlikely; and if some challenge to Erdoğan was successful, there is a good chance that it would lead to instability in the short term.
- Akşener is unlikely to capitalise on the social discontent created by the increasing autocratic figure of Erdoğan, as her political platform is still not well defined.
- As Erdoğan’s political discourse has followed a more nationalist path since 2015, aligning itself to the MHP in this respect, Akşener is likely to appeal to the nationalist and centrist AKP voters. If her strategy is successful, Akşener would still be challenged by the Kurdish vote, which has demonstrated to be crucial to victory in general elections. Akşener’s ideology is characterised by an ethnic definition of the Turkish nation, a factor that automatically excludes Kurdish citizens and legitimises an armed approach to this conflict.
- The creation of a new political platform led by Akşener still has not enabled her to penetrate the centrist political spectrum, as her political allies are characterised by their historical connections (including herself) to the infamous Turkish “Deep State” and the associated use of informal and criminal mechanisms to achieve political aims. This legacy will also work against attracting centrist and liberal elements from joining and/or voting for her party.
Akşener is soon to launch a new political party, a development triggered by her expulsion, in September 2016, from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahçeli (NTV, 08.09.2016). Since 2015, Akşener had been pushing the MHP leadership to organise a party congress to decide on a new party leader in response to the poor electoral results Bahçeli achieved in the November 2015 general election.
In addition to poor election results, Bahçeli also became a key ally of President Erdoğan, particularly supporting him during the 2016 constitutional reforms, and endorsing the popular referendum conducted in April 2017.
The political outcome of that referendum further legitimised Akşener’s internal opposition to Bahçeli, as Erdoğan’s slight victory (51.41% voted yes) demonstrated that there existed a clear anti-Erdoğanist bloc.
Bahçeli at the same time, had come to rely on Erdoğan’s influence in the judiciary and in the police to block Akşener’s efforts to organise an extraordinary congress where a new MHP leader would be elected.
Even without a political platform, Akşener has been able to capitalise on the discontent generated by Erdoğan’s increased power and autocratic government, while offering a new political space “far away” from Erdoğan’s puppet MHP and Bahçeli. Basically, Akşener’s constituency could be described as ultra-nationalist voters, convinced of the secular nature of the Republic of Turkey, and who see in Erdoğan a threat to their core foundational values, especially in regards to the political accommodation of the Kurdish population.
Incompatibilities and the Kurdish Factor
Akşener is ready to openly challenge Erdoğan in the 2019 next presidential elections. Working in her favour is that no other political leader or political party has yet been able to dethrone Erdoğan from power, as they have failed to consolidate an opposition bloc around different political ideologies.
Akşener pretends to lead an opposition bloc that could bring together both leftists and conservatives who are disappointed with Erdoğan, and ultra-nationalists with an ethnic-based political identity – such as the Alevis, one of the most affected ethnic groups of Erdoğan’s political rhetoric of Sunni-Muslim-Turk identity (Hürriyet, 28.08.2017).
One of the critical factors in Turkey for succeeding in a general election is the Kurdish vote, which somehow acts as a bridge between different political priorities, such as religion, nationalism, autonomy and the economy. One of the main political successes of Erdoğan has been the co-option of the Kurdish conservative vote to secure his national hegemony. Although Erdoğan has turned his discourse towards nationalism, he still has been able to retain Kurdish support.
It is highly unlikely that Akşener could pull these votes from Erdoğan. Despite her use of a more liberalising discourse, which could align her to progressive political agenda’s, her political past - linked to ethnic-nationalist ideologies – will make it difficult for her to realise any real lasting political success.
Besides the Kurdish factor, Akşener cannot pretend to co-opt voters from the Alevi community, who are despised by her own constituency, who are also strongly anti-Communist and anything that resembles it, including leftist and other progressive agenda’s.
As of September 2017, Akşener has not been able to co-opt “centrist” figures to her new, and still unnamed, political platform. Her main achievement has been to convince key political figure within the MHP to join her, but these figures are far from being centrist politicians.
Two main MHP figures have joined Akşener’s political project: Ümit Özdağ and Koray Aydın.
According to Shadow Governance sources Özdağ is believed to be one of the most radical members of this new political platform. Some observers believe his ideology is quasi-fascist, underlined by allegations that he instigated the recent mob attacks against Kurdish/progressive political groups. Although he has ensured that this new political platform is centrist (Hürriyet Daily News, 23.08.2017), according to sources from MHP circles, Özdağ maintains strong links to the military.
Aydın, on the other hand, was one of the most influential figures in the MHP, with well-known ties to the youth branch of this party, the “Ülkü Ocakları” (profile available in the Shadow Governance Store). Aydın has long been tied to ultra-nationalism in Turkey, active in politics since 1970. He is believed to have played a key role in coordinating the state security forces with the Ülkü Ocakları in their criminal fight against leftist and progressive elements in the Turkish society.
Moreover, the Ülkü Ocakları are also believed to have been involved in the “dirty war” of the 1990s (and more recently after the failure of Erdoğan in achieving an absolute majority in the June 2015 elections) fight against the Kurdish armed group, Partiya Kalkerên Kurdsitanê (PKK), which triggered the abuse of human rights against the Kurdish civilian population.
These ideological limitations have to be added to the political and ministerial career of Akşener, who during 1995 and 1996 was the Minister of Interior. It is believed that Akşener was oversaw the creation of parallel military structures, supported by the government, in the fight against the PKK and progressive elements within Turkish society (WikiLeaks 07.08.2007).
Ease of Transition
Despite allegations that Akşener and Aydın were involved in questionable activities against the civilian population, and the violation of human rights, during the 1990s, it is unlikely that this will significantly impact her political career vis-á-vis Erdoğan.
The government and its submissive media outlets began a campaign against Akşener, accusing her of being part of the Gülen Movement, a religious group now labelled a terrorist group (FETÖ) by the Turkish government (Sabah, 23.04.2016). Despite the unlikeliness of these accusations, this indicates that the government does – at least in part - fear her political ambitions.
Akşener is trying hard to co-opt political figures from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), former politicians that were once AKP members, and finally the AKP constituency, while at the same time co-opting votes from the disillusioned urban elite who have suffered from Erdoğan continuous attempts to accumulate more and more political (and commercial) influence. A Herculean effort.
This task is made even more difficult because Akşener does not have the explicit support of any large media outlet, a factor that will severely limit her ability to project a national image. Moreover, and despite her indirect or direct contacts with informal state networks, Erdoğan is increasingly securing the loyalty of the security apparatus, also utilising informal networks, such as SADAT (see “Erdoğan’s Praetorian Guards – How Turkey is Leveraging Illicit Networks”, 22nd August 2017).
More importantly, any possible political transition will also be complicated by the informal institutionalisation of Erdoğan’s presidency, as the modifications to the Constitution have reinforced a system that is totally loyal to the President. In this way, Erdoğan has secured the loyalty of the judiciary, and has diminished the accountability of parliament, in addition to securing loyalty from the security apparatus (see “Formal and Informal Institutionalisation of Erdoğan’s Presidency”, 31st May 2017).
In sum, Akşener’s political project, despite being praised as potentially providing a formidable challenge to Erdoğan, is severely hampered. Its homogeneous political identity can only be temporary, it has a weak political platform, and it is coloured by her past in the Interior Ministry – often defined by association to illicit criminal activities vis-a-vis state sponsored paramilitary groups in their fight against the PKK.
In this sense, Akşener will need to strengthen her political arguments, and mould a platform that reverses the polarisation of Turkish society that is happening under President Erdoğan. She will also have to overcome any future political challengers, such as Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), who has recently announced his intention to create a civic-political platform to stand for the 2019 local elections (Hürriyet Daily News, 27.09.2017).