Analysis

The Woman Trying to Oust Erdogan Picks Up Steam

Meral Aksener could find herself at the top of an alternative alliance for the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, though the incumbent can always arrest political opponents as is his wont

Meral Aksener, the leader of the Iyi Party, poses at party headquarters in Ankara, April 24, 2018.
Murad Sezer / Reuters

Meral Aksener, known in Turkey as “the she wolf,” wants to be the country’s next president. But she isn’t the liberal savior that the left and center hope for – she has roots in the far-right Nationalist Movement Party. Aksener quit that outfit less than a year ago to establish her Iyi Party; iyi means “good” in Turkish.

Aksener, 61, rejects reconciliation with the Kurds and doesn’t like the presence of so many Syrian refugees in Turkey. Her supporters, like those of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, come from the nationalist, conservative and religious communities. But she also rejects the omnipotent presidential regime that Erdogan has entrenched with constitutional amendments barely approved in the April 2017 referendum.

When she learned that the head of the Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahceli, had agreed with Erdogan to push for increased presidential powers, she tried to oust Bahceli and take over the party. But when she came to party headquarters to protest Bahceli’s move, she and her supporters were blocked by the police. She immediately got on a megaphone and started shouting slogans, and was soon surrounded by a sea of supporters.

Publicly, Erdogan treats Aksener as a nuisance who poses no real threat. At first, the five parliament members who left the Nationalist Movement Party with her couldn’t run in the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, which have been moved up a year and a half. Under Turkish law, a party must have at least 20 legislators to run, or branches in at least half the country’s provinces. Aksener’s party hadn’t fulfilled these conditions, but opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaraulo “donated” 15 lawmakers who quit his party to join Aksener’s, letting her contend in the elections.

Aksener isn’t the only thing troubling the presidential palace, which, in its literal sense, cost more than half a billion dollars to build. Former President Abdullah Gul is also considering running against Erdogan. Gul, a former prime minister and foreign minister, helped Erdogan found the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party, but like many others has been shaken by the direction Erdogan is leading the country. The rivalry between the two became open toward the end of Gul’s tenure, apparently over its duration; Gul was president for seven years until 2014.

Nice guy Gul

Gul was angered by Erdogan’s ambition to be an executive president, his severe restrictions on the media, his violation of an agreement with the Kurds and his policies for tackling the Syria crisis. Gul is considered the party’s “good guy” – educated and refined, a speaker of foreign languages with close ties to other countries. Gul also expresses a liberal worldview, in contrast to others in the Justice and Development Party. When his presidential term ended he said he was retiring from politics.

But in recent days he has met with all the opposition leaders to discuss an alliance against Erdogan. The question is if such a coalition has a chance to oust the president. The answer would appear to be no. According to the polls, Erdogan still enjoys support topping 40 percent, though according to some polls, if his rivals agree on one candidate, he or she might garner an alternative 40 percent.

Such a forecast is theoretical because Erdogan has enough time and means to persuade at least some of his rivals to join him for a quid pro quo. Or, as is his custom, he can launch a savage delegitimization campaign and arrest political opponents on charges of supporting terror or supporting or belonging to the movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the audience as he delivers a speech in Ankara, April 24, 2018.
Adem Altan / AFP

Still, to topple Erdogan, his opponents have been impressive in their willingness to concede parts of their ideology and join activists and leaders with different principles. Turkey hasn’t seen such a coalition for a long time. But even if they succeed, Turkey will plunge into intense wrangling over political and economic issues that would threaten the government’s stability.

Erdogan’s opponents are pinning their hopes on Turkey’s economic problems. His image as the country’s economic and national savior is imperiled by the currency’s slump, a budget deficit reaching 7 percent, rising interest rates, unemployment over 12 percent and inflation over 10 percent.

Last month Erdogan ranted at his deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Mehmet Simsek, who demanded higher interest rates to quash inflation. Erdogan also blasted the central bank governor, whose position is similar to Simsek’s.

Erdogan maintains that high interest rates are stalling the real-estate market, weighing on debtors and slowing the country’s development. He hinted that Simsek can quit if he doesn’t like his policy. Simsek’s predecessor, who also objected to lowering interest rates, found himself ousted after Erdogan implied that he was a Gulen supporter.

“Anyone who takes his money out of the country isn’t loyal to it. We won’t forgive those who do so,” Erdogan warned businesspeople who prefer to buy dollars and invest their money abroad.

No campaigning in Germany

Turkey’s foreign relations, especially with the United States and Germany, aren’t great. Erdogan recently decided to take dozens of tons of gold out of the United States and deposit them with the Bank of England as “punishment” for Donald Trump’s support for the Kurds in Syria and his failure to extradite Gulen. It’s also a response to a New York court’s conviction of an official of a Turkish state bank for dodging the sanctions on Iran. The conviction could cost the bank and Turkey billions of dollars in fines.

Erdogan has also fallen out with Germany and other countries due to his harsh violations of human rights and freedom of expression, which led to the jailing of tens of thousands since the 2016 coup attempt, including dozens of journalists. Ahead of the election, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands have said they won’t let Turkish politicians campaign among the Turkish communities living in their countries. The municipality of Solingen, Germany demanded to examine Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s speech ahead of a gathering scheduled in the city for next month, to make sure he doesn’t give an election speech.

Turkey is holding onto the Kurdish Afrin district in Syria and has even set up a local council there. Turkey denies that it plans to annex the district, but its sway there gives it powerful leverage over Russia’s negotiations to end the crisis in Syria. Still, the war is exacting a heavy price on Turkey, both to deal with the more than 3 million Syrian refugees in the country and to continue the fighting.

The criticism in Turkey over its involvement in Syria hasn’t yet developed into a broad civil protest that could endanger Erdogan. In the meantime, the Syrian front and the war against the Kurds appear to be playing into Erdogan’s hands, as he can portray himself as a proud nationalist resolved to protect his country’s borders.

For a change, an Erdogan win in the election may not be something obvious. But when the assumption is that Erdogan will remain president, Turkey must prepare for a new stage of autocratic rule, this time with the president protected by the constitution.

This will be a president who can dissolve parliament at will, be almost immune to prosecution and shape parliament more or less as he pleases. As president, he can also be his party’s chairman, unlike in the past. As far as Erdogan is concerned, obtaining these powers is worth every effort, and he’s not about to stop.