World·Analysis

Sunny ways with an edge: Turkey's Meral Aksener prepares to take on Erdogan

Political opponents have long tried to keep Turkish politician Meral Aksener at bay, but she's back with her own party. Can she unseat Erdogan in the next election?

Aksener says country's democracy 'under threat'

Meral Aksener has been a member of several Turkish political parties, and launched her own party in Ankara on Oct. 25. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

On a grey morning in Ankara, Meral Aksener promised to be Turkey's bright light.

On Wednesday, the 61-year-old politician unveiled a new party: IYI Parti. The word iyi means "good" or "fine." The party's logo is a sun and each ray symbolizes part of Aksener's platform.

The party is trying to convince Turks that IYI can alleviate the powerlessness and polarization millions of them are feeling.

Aksener is expected to challenge current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the critical 2019 elections. But her sunny ways are decidedly different from what Justin Trudeau promised during his campaign two years ago in Canada.

She will try to snatch away conservative voters who are unhappy with Erdogan's almost authoritarian control over the country, while convincing those on the left to follow her, too.

Aksener may be promising a kinder, happier Turkey, but she appears ready for a fight. Her cadence and rally cries are very similar to Erdogan's. His combative style seems to have made yelling a necessity for Turkish politicians. Toughness — or the perception of it — is mandatory.

IYI Parti is Meral Aksener's new political venture. The eight rays in the IYI Parti's logo represent key facets of the party's platform, including wealth, justice and hope. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

"Do you remember?" Aksener screamed at the crowd at Wednesday's unveiling, though she was really addressing her political opponents. "When I stood up for the rights of the people and you wagged your fingers at me? The woman you tried to scare? Do you remember me?"

Even before creating the party, Aksener has been working to make sure her critics don't forget her, biting back at insults and accusations in interviews and through social media.

One of Aksener's advisors describes his new boss as "tenacious," and it's clear her camp saw this as a perfect moment to pounce.

Erdogan, the advisor told CBC News, "has made so many mistakes. People are sick of this government."

A turning point

Many consider the referendum last spring to expand Erdogan's powers a turning point. He won, but just barely, eking out a 51 per cent victory that is still disputed amid allegations of vote rigging. Aksener's team believes the president's popularity is not as solid as it seems.

Every day, Turks are confronted with headlines describing a political "crisis." A tense relationship with the European Union — over refugees and human rights — is one of those crises. Then there's a series of high-profile diplomatic incidents that are pushing the country's long and strong relationship with the U.S. to a historic low.

Aksener is already signalling the importance of reviving relations with the European Union, reminding her audience on Wednesday that half of Turkey's foreign trade is done with European countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated his power in a referendum last spring. (Associated Press)

Aksener's party may be new, but she's no novice. She was an Erdogan ally once and served as interior minister under Turkey's first — and only — female prime minister, Tansu Ciller.

"[Aksener's] name does draw attention, she does excite people. She's a candidate that can actually win," said international relations expert Soli Ozel.

Western media have already had a field day trying to label her, seizing on some of the nicknames her supporters use as well as creating some of their own. "She-wolf," "Iron Lady," "Mother Turk," some have written. One article quoted a comparison to Hillary Clinton.

Ozel cautions there is history that could come back to haunt the woman her aides call Meral "Abla" — Big Sister Meral.

"It will be very difficult for her to get any Kurdish votes because of her record as interior minister in the middle of the 'dirty war' of the 1990s," Ozel said.

Those years represent the height of the deadly conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which continues today. Some 40,000 people have been killed in PKK attacks and the Turkish army's response since the conflict began in the 1980s.

Aksener's campaign said a visit to the majority Kurdish region in Turkey's southeast was the first trip on her itinerary after the party launch.

Turkey's 'wolves'

That trip, along with promises in her 75-page party platform, suggests she wants the government to serve all Turks, regardless of ethnicity or religion.                                               

But Aksener is, unapologetically, a nationalist.

At Aksener's rally, some supporters made the symbol of Turkey's "Grey Wolves," which is often associated with the country's ultra-nationalists. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

At the Wednesday rally, many of her supporters held their hands high, their fingers folded in the shape of a wolf's head. This is the symbol of Turkey's ultra-nationalists, and one Aksener does not shy away from. She's been photographed in that pose many times (although not at her campaign launch).

Her platform references the PKK and the fight against terror. Without specifically using the word "Kurds," the document says the party wants to create "an atmosphere of a stable democracy" and "equal citizenship."

An Aksener advisor told CBC she is centrist, not far-right. He said Turkish nationalism "is not as exclusive, let's say racist" as it appears in Europe.

"People think she has a harsh view of what it means to be a Turk," he said. "But that's just not true."

Many in the crowd on Wednesday want her to take a hard line against anything that doesn't fit into their version of what it means to be a Turk. Diversity is not always celebrated.

Aksener is trying to recall the centre-right conservatism that Erdogan espoused 15 years ago. He attracted even liberal voters when he first came to power, promising to treat all Turks equally. But as his power grew, that openness seems to have vanished.

Filling a void

Aksener could also fill the void left by the official opposition in Turkey. Despite the success of the "Justice March" this summer against the government crackdown since the attempted coup in 2016, few believe Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his Republican People's Party (CHP) can challenge Erdogan in 2019.

Aksener is also tailoring her campaign to attract Turkey's young voters. Forty million people in Turkey are under the age of 30 — that's half the population. Youth unemployment is at nearly 11 percent now, and both Erdogan and Aksener will need to prove they can change that.

At the party launch, photos of Aksener were juxtaposed with pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Ozel said that if Aksener is to have a chance of beating Erdogan, she'll need to offer something substantially new, and distance herself from Turkey's old-guard nationalists.

"The most important thing about [Aksener's] candidacy is the desperate need of the Turkish middle class to have a candidate and a party outside the official opposition that they can vote for in good conscience."

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