The journey of Turkey’s right wing female leader, Meral Akşener

Every malice befell Meral Akşener as a result of her abandoning her conservative home and powerful political figures such as Devlet Bahçeli. Despite this, Akşener has transformed the politics she inherited. As we come up on the parliamentary debate concerning the political immunities of HDP deputies, we will see whether Akşener will contradict herself, or whether she will transform her political house into a home.

The political career of Meral Akşener, the founder and current leader of the İYİ Party (Good Party), has been wrought with challenges and political obstacles. After leading an opposition group and breaking away from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) she established herself as an outlier and not only an ambitious politician, but an ambitious female centre-right politician.

As she continues to establish her political legacy and build the reputation of her party, let us take a look at those that came before her, the challenges she has faced, and whether she can overcome the obstacles she currently faces in order to transform her political house into a home.

The biggest concern of Turkey’s far-right leader, Alparslan Türkeş who rose to prominence after the 1960 coup d’état, was to urbanize nationalism. This was the main theme throughout his political career. Political rhetoric at the time that regarded the word ‘cosmopolitan’ as meaning ‘degenerate’ and used it as an insult was never going to succeed in this aim.

If we look at the history of the MHP, which Türkeş founded, we can see that ‘tradition’ has been a migration movement. The enemy of this ideology was ‘communism’ and its strongest rival in this enmity performance was Islamism, especially ‘Salvation.’

We can make a loose distinction here: The conservatives who migrated from rural areas to the periphery of cities and became tradesmen, craftsmen, and small business owners were generally pro-Salvation, supporting the National Salvation Party (MSP), those who became laborers were MHP supporters.

Such dynamics were about connections with such laborers: Who will give the immigrant the first glass of water? Who will help him find a job? In short, which networks will the immigrant hold onto? As he will undoubtedly become a fish in the net he fell in during those initial moments of contact in the city.

This form of nationalism finds its footing in such labor associations as opposed to leftist trade unions, in vocational associations as opposed to leftist professional organizations, and in student organizations as opposed to leftist student unions.

As the migrant crowds slowly become integrated into urban life, with the ideal of “fighting communism,” this ideology becomes the “unofficial police force of the state.” In a way, this fight against communists taught party members how to be this kind of ‘ideal Turk,’ and at the same time how to be a Muslim.

A joke they tell in their gatherings adequately summarizes their dilemma: “Suppose two men fell into the sea, one of them is a non-Muslim Turk and the other is Muslim but not a Turk. You have enough strength to save only one of them. Which one would you save?”
Such is the dilemma of “Turkish-Islam synthesis,” which the 1980 coup d’état adopted as its ideological basis. Nonetheless, this same Islam is also the biggest obstacle between Alparslan Türkeş and the urbanized, pro-state nationalism ideal which he dreamt of since the 1940s.

When MHP ideology became one of the four leaves of former Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal’s four-leaf clover, the MHP followers in cities and towns benefited financially. Fewer laborers were seen among their ranks. Since there was no threat of communism left in the 1990s, the atmosphere was suitable for Alparslan Türkeş to move forward with a more urban “idealism/nationalism” perspective.

The 1991 election alliance formed with the Welfare Party (RP) and the Reformist Democracy Party (IDP) was resulted in more deputies in parliament, but also emphasized the major differences between the alliance’s policies and those of Alparslan Türkeş.

In 1992, there an important differentiation came to fruition: the MHP (known as the MÇP in those days) left behind its more Islamist branch led by Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu; The MHP tried to shift towards a more urban secular direction.

However, the political atmosphere which resulted from the Susurluk car crash on Nov. 3, 1996, which pulled back the curtain of Turkey’s deep state, set the MHP back in this regard. While MHP followers rejected claims that they were ‘mafia-like,’ such denial was insufficient in proving the claims false.

In 1996, the Great Unity Party (BBP) under Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu was established and the MHP acquired its current name. Türkeş held a celebration for new members of his party, where journalists were also present. At the meeting, one new member said, “I won’t be one of those idealists who wears white socks and steps on the back of his moccasins. I’m an Atatürk nationalist and I will be representing Atatürk’s nationalism here.” You could hear a pin drop.

Devlet Bahçeli’s failure

It is not incorrect to say that Devlet Bahçeli maintained Türkeş’s idealism of an urban nationalistic MHP. Bahçeli became the MHP’s leader after two very tumultuous party congresses. The ruling coalition of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), Motherland Party (ANAP), and MHP was established during those days when a military memorandum resulted in the resignation of the government.

The coalition and Bahçeli’s opposition look meaningful when we consider his objectives. Society largely praised Bahçeli for “keeping his followers (the idealists) off the streets.”

If only urbanization were so simple, Bahçeli might have made a great example as “an idealist without a moustache.” But such a reputation is not enough. Being ‘urbanized’ also requires talking with a diversity of individuals in order to reach solutions for common problems.

Bahçeli did not do this, and thus, failed his most serious test in 2015. He resigned when his party did not pass the threshold for representation in the 2002 elections, but we have reason to believe that he knew he would be called back.

He lost a lot of votes again in the November 2015 elections after Meral Akşener, whom he had not nominated, announced that “she was ready to fulfill her duty;” i.e. that she was ready to lead the MHP.

The emergence of an alternate made it impossible for him to give up. He established an alliance with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and cancelled a party assembly, thus taking the MHP ten steps back; All at once, everybody was free to wear white socks and step on the backs of their moccasins.

The MHP gave up the city center and returned to the periphery, but simultaneously become a partner in the ruling coalition.

The MHP underwent yet another division and the İYİ Party (Good Party), under Meral Akşener’s leadership, emerged from its ranks. What remained of the MHP can be clearly seen in the politics of the AKP-MHP coalition, now named the People’s Alliance.

Meral Akşener is the prominent first female leader from the right wing. She did not enter the political scene after trials and tribulations. Rather, she was selected by former Prime Minister and former President Süleyman Demirel.

Meral Akşener came from a right-wing family and she briefly worked with PM Tansu Çiller, as the Interior Minister for six months, replacing Mehmet Ağar. We have good reasons to believe that Tansu Çiller and Mehmet Ağar presented burdens which Meral Akşener did not want to carry.

In an interview she states, “I was a minister for only six months, but people believe I’m responsible for that entire period.” Süleyman Soylu, current Interior Minister, took these words seriously. In June of 2019, he contemptuously said, “You were interior minister for six months even though you were an intern.” Akşener is blamed for Mehmet Ağar’s policies during her short term in office. People point to her roll in every disaster that comes to mind when we talk about “returning to the 1990s.”

Another burden she must bear is that of the events that followed the Susurluk scandal. She largely avoids discussing that period in interviews, but perhaps nobody is asking her persistently enough. Journalists often ask her questions about her cooking, her family and how she chooses her dresses.

Leaving her conservative home

Meral Akşener left the True Path Party (DYP) in 2001 and became involved in the establishment of the AKP. She soon after left the AKP because she did not agree with Erdoğan’s stance on the Milli Görüş (National Vision). She then joined the MHP and could have easily remained if she had been loyal to Bahçeli and his policies, but she did not do so.

Every malice befell Meral Akşener as a result of her abandoning such powerful political figures and her conservative home. The pro-government media even claimed that there was a video showing Akşener cheating on her husband. This was one of the worst accusations against a female conservative politician, but she pushed back and denied the accusation.

She still vehemently opposes this slander when it comes up. Her doing so, as a female conservative politician, is unheard of. She is well-aware of the repercussions of her actions for women in conservative households whenever she takes this stance

In the 2018 general elections, she overcame such setbacks. She asked the main-opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to lend her 15 deputies, so that her party would have an alliance in parliament, and to guarantee the party’s participation in the elections. Thus, she became the co-founder of the “Nation Alliance.” 

Then, even though she knew she would not be elected, she ran for presidency to show that she was determined to build her own house. She did not win, but she did not give up the alliance.

In the 2019 local elections, she supported the CHP in Istanbul, and helped raise the hope that victory is not unachievable, not only to the Nation Alliance but to all opposition. CHP scored, but Akşener was the most valuable player.

Meanwhile, she frequently received “come home” calls from Bahçeli, which certainly only made Akşener more ambitious.

Akşener has transformed the politics she inherited. With such a political past as hers, it is not easy to remove word ‘origin’ from the phrase ‘Kurdish-origin,’ but she managed it.

Regarding the recent Gara operation, she strongly rejected the AKP-MHP coalition’s call for sharing the defeat, and she likely encouraged the CHP to do the same.

She responded to AKP deputy Özlem Zengin, who denied that police strip-searched detainees and visitors to prisons, and in the same speech, also answered Mehmet Özhaseki, a former AKP cabinet minister, who criticized the HDP electorate. Her tone was quite calm for a center-right politician. Immediately afterwards, she left the podium to Münevver Acar, who is about the same age as her, to describe her struggles with poverty.
A new house

Recent polls demonstrate the social segment which the İYİ Party appeal to. Let’s look at data from Metropoll’s January survey, and compare it to that of the MHP: In the 18-34 age group electorate, the share of the İYİ Party base is 7.9 percent while MHP has 6.9 percent. Of the 35-54 age group, the İYİ Party has 8.9 percent while MHP has 6.5 percent. Of those above 55, the İYİ Party has 13.2 percent and MHP has 7.7 percent. While the İYİ Party is preferred by 6 percent of women, this figure is 3.1 for MHP. The İYİ Party voter is on average far more educated than the MHP voter; Among university graduate voters, 13 percent choose the İYİ Party, while MHP is at 4.4 percent.

The İYİ Party is receiving votes from 5.2 percent of the religious segment, 7.6 percent of conservatives, 15.2 percent of nationalists/ultranationalists, 18 percent of seculars/laics, 13.1 percent of Kemalists, 10.7 percent of liberal/democrats, 4.9 percent of social democrats, and 5.8 percent of socialist/communists.

The share of MHP in the same segments is as follows: 6.6 percent of the religious, 2.1 percent of conservatives, 19.6 percent of nationalists/ultranationalists, 2.1 percent of seculars, 3.4 percent of Kemalists and 0.7 percent of social democrats vote for the MHP. The liberals/democrats and socialists/communists constitute zero percent of the MHP base. Nationalists/ultranationalists are the only segment where the MHP is head of the İYİ Party.

In most cases, those who call themselves Kemalists are also nationalists or ultranationalists. Meral Akşener has a new definition of nationalism, very different from that of the MHP. Her nationalism is equipped with the charm of urbanism, where the pious, liberal, and even the socialist to an extent can sit and eat at the same table and discuss shared concerns.

There is also interesting data when looking into ethnicities of the voters. The İYİ party has received only 0.6 percent of the Kurdish vote, while the MHP received 2.2 percent. While 9.5 percent of Zazas voted for the İYİ Party, none of the Zaza voted for MHP. The ruling AKP has the highest percentage of the Zaza vote at 61.9 percent. Thus, the İYİ Party has the potential for diversity. Moreover, Akşener has shown on more than once occasion that she is capable of negotiating and creating positive outcomes for all parties involved.

Now is the time to add more seats to the table. But which seats? Will Akşener take into account Bahçeli’s preferences when deciding who to invite to sit at the table she built?

During the local elections, she assured the winning goal for Istanbul, but let her teammate score. Now that she has the ball. Will she score a goal personally for Bahçeli?

We are likely see an answer to this question during the parliamentary debate concerning the summary of proceedings regarding the political immunities of HDP deputies. Will Akşener be able to protect the house she has built in the city center from Bahçeli’s greedy hands? Will she decide who will eat at the table with her in this house? Or, the scorned Bahçeli decide on this? In short, while the situation of HDP deputies is voted on, we will see whether the İYİ Party will contradict itself and its leader Akşener?

There is an anecdote that Akşener tells in almost every interview: A young man who was being prosecuted for being a member of PKK spoke to her and told her, “I am Kurdish, but I am not a member of the PKK.” She told him to get rid of the, “but” in that sentence, leaving simply, “I am Kurdish. I am not a member of the PKK."

While voting on whether the HDP deputies’ political immunities will be lifted, we will see whether this sentiment holds any weight for Akşener. Will Akşener be able to say, “I am Turkish, and I am a nationalist; however, I will not be one of those who agonize you and everyone else.”

Will she be able to say, “I don’t like the HDP at all, BUT it represents the will of 6 million voters. So, I will not allow their deputies to be prosecuted via this absurd proceeding. I will not allow the reputation of a Parliament, to which my own party belongs, to be destroyed.”

If she can do this, she will have overcome a significant obstacle on the road to transforming her political house into a home. She will be one step closer to setting up a wide table where she can discuss the words, “but” and “however.”

If she cannot, then it will be a grave disappointment given her journey up to this point. Bahçeli will be able to look her in the eyes and say, “That’s the way things are done around here, right madam?”