Meral Akşener, a Woman against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

A Reformer or a Turkish Marine Le Pen?

On 25 October 2017, Meral Akşener founded a new group, “The Good Party” (Iyi Parti). The former Minister of Home Affairs is often compared with Marine Le Pen and might be seen as an alternative to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, capable of appealing to voters beyond the nationalist electorate in the 2019 presidential election. A Gezici Institute poll published November 1st even predicts her to win the run-off by 52,9%.

“I’m going to challenge him. Everybody knows how tough I am. I’ll restore the rule of law in Turkey.” Nor was this the nationalist rebel’s first indictment of the Turkish president. “I’m ruining his comfort zone, because he knows I’m a genuine rival,” she also declared. Meral Akşener has returned to center stage with an ambitious two-fold project: taking first place with the nationalist electorate and winning the 2019 election. To do this, she has to defeat the two heavy weights of Turkish politics: Devlet Bahçeli, leader of The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) since 1997, and, of course, the hyper-president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the strong man of Turkey since 2003.

According to the first public statements made by Meral Akşener’s entourage, the Good Party intends to achieve a (nationalist) synthesis between the ideas of Erdoğan’s Islamo-conservative group, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and those of the Republican People’s Party, ideological heir of Atatürk. Considering the radical polarization of Turkish society today, such an ambition might seem laughable. And yet by choosing to set up her headquarters in Çankaya, a very elitist, Kemalist neighborhood in Ankara, she sent a strong message to the secular electorate. On her Twitter page (1.9 million subscribers) there are regular tributes to “martyred” soldiers who died fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), photos of Mustafa Kemal during the War of Independence (1919-1923) and, every Friday, pictures of mosques with pious captions. With this three-pronged program, nationalist, Kemalist and conservative, Meral Akşener intends to rise above the traditional divisions, excepting, of course, the Kurdish secessionists. Thousands of MHP delegates and cadres have already resigned in her favor.

Rebellion Within the MHP

The first radical right-wing party in Turkey was the Party of the Nation (MP) created in 1948 by dissidents from the center-right Democratic Party (DP). Within this movement and its avatars there are two conflicting currents of Turkish nationalism, a classic confrontation between anciens and modernes which still finds echoes today. On the one hand, we have those who base their nationalism in the Ottoman past and Islam; their thinking belongs to the very broad movement of resistance to Kemalism. And, on the other hand, are those who endorsed the rhetoric of Pan-Turanism1, distilled at the end of the 19th C. and revived in part by the official ideology of the young Turkish Republic. Actually, Pan-Turanists are more inclined to defend Kemalism and a pre-Islamic cultural heritage.

An attempt to achieve a synthesis between these divergent views was undertaken by a founding figure of the Turkish far right, Colonel Alparsan Türkeş. After taking part in the 1960 coup, Türkeş managed to get himself elected leader of the Republican Villager Nation Party (CKMP), a far-right group that changed its name in 1969 to become the present MHP. At the head of this movement until 1997, he was careful not to offend either current, a tactic favored by the extremely violent cold war ambiance that prevailed in Turkey at the time. It was this context which enabled militant nationalists and Islamists to put together a united front among young activists from rural areas with a virulent anti-communist rhetoric that lumped together socialist sympathizers, labor leaders, Kurds and Alevis. A regular civil war broke out which lasted until the 1980 coup. At the high point of the street-fighting between far left and far right, a dozen people were killed every day.

The death of the retired colonel triggered fresh conflicts within the nationalist right. At the 1997 congress, there were three main contenders for the leadership: Devlet Bahçeli, Ramiz Ongun and Tuğrul Türkeş, the colonel’s son, who reused to accept the results of the ballot. The congress was postponed and D. Bahçeli became – by default – the new leader of the MHP, whose internal dissension he was scarcely able to contain.

After 2002 and the fall of the coalition cabinet, it had formed with the center left, the MHP once again became an opposition party, coming in second or third in the successive elections. It had its best result in 2015 with 16.3 % of votes cast, but five months later was down again to 11.9%. Some MHP leaders blamed this defeat on Bahçeli and demanded an extraordinary congress. When the latter refused to comply, Meral Akşener, whose popularity was on the rise, filed a lawsuit along with two former MPs, Koray Aydin Sinan Oğan. On 19 June 2016, a congress was organized by the rebels and 659 delegates voted in favor of an extraordinary session to elect a new party leader. This vote was deemed illegal by Devlet Bahçeli, and the Supreme Electoral Council (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu) ruled in his favor.

These two episodes convinced the rebels that the AKP government had made a deal with the leader of the MHP, gaining his political support in exchange for his being allowed to stay on as party head. These allegations seemed borne out by what happened after the attempted coup.

Indeed the failed putsch of 15 July 2016, which the Turkish authorities blamed on Fethullah Gülen’s movement, has made things more difficult for the MHP rebels, accused by the pro-governmental media of sympathizing with the cemaat (community).2 One newspaper, Yeni Akit even maintained that if the putsch had been successful, Meral Aksener would have been Prime Minister. The aftermath of the failed coup offered Delvet Bahçeli an opportunity to regain a degree of legitimacy. He espoused the “spirit of Yenikapi” (national unity), called for all parties to rally behind a government faced with the Gülenist and Kurdish threats, spoke out in favor of the restoration of the death penalty and advocated the “yes” vote in the referendum for the “presidentialisation” of the regime.

The referendum caused new dissension within the MHP. The rebels, led by Meral Akşener campaigned for a rejection of the constitutional reform with a platform called “Turkish nationalists say no”.

The Good Party is not the Front National

Several commentators have compared the president of The Good Party with Marine Le Pen because of her strategy of appealing to popular discontent to extend the far-right vote. However on several issues, the visions of the two nationalist leaders differ considerably.

Marine Le Pen’s criticisms of economic globalization have no equivalent in the program of the Turkish nationalists who cleave to the standard neoliberal line. Meral Akşener has her sights set on centrist voters, in particular those who are disappointed with the CHP. Indeed in the last few elections, the party founded by Atatürk has seen its score drop to around 25%. The Good Party might profit by a hankering for change among voters who are secularized and liberal-minded, yet sensitive to nationalist rhetoric.

However the left wing of the CHP does not seem attracted to Meral Akşener. The Atatürk party still remains a safe haven for those voters most firmly attached to secular principles. Thus the Alevis will most likely remain immune to the appeal of the leader of The Good Party who was hoping to draw their vote by embodying a more aggressive opposition to the AKP than the CHP in its present form.

Another major difference between Marine Le Pen and Meral Akşener is that while the leader of the Front National has held office only locally and in the European Parliament, the Turkish “rebel” has been a cabinet minister and vice-president of Parliament. Furthermore she has the benefit, contrary to Le Pen, of a center-right background which would appear to legitimize her ideological U-turn.3 Moreover, she has repeatedly appealed to those AKP voters who feel uneasy about Erdoğan’s authoritarian turning, to the majority of MHP voters who rejected the recent constitutional referendum, and to the “strategically calculating” electorate of the CHP, weary of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, all of which contributes to The Good Party’s center-right image.

In addition, and contrary to the Front National, Turkish nationalist rhetoric is as a general rule only marginally concerned with the issue of Europe. While lambasting the UE’s supposed support for Armenia, Greece and the PKK, The Good Party will occasionally come out in favor of joining the Union. In 2010, at the Conference of Presidents of European Parliaments, the then vice-president of the Turkish national assembly sang the praises of the Lisbon treaty.

The “Atatürkist” Right Against the AKP

And finally, The Good Party occupies a “centrist” position regarding relations between church and state. Former MP Yusuf Halaçoğlu has declared that the new group would be “Atatürkist,” which would mean a clearly assumed secularism. According to Turkish CNN (7 July 2017), the movement “will oppose cults, brotherhoods and all so-called religious structures, leaving them out of politics. The party will reject all schools of thought conducive to social separatism.”

If we are to compare this new party with other European political groups, we would do better to look to the right wings of classically conservative parties, associating economic liberalism, a strong central government, the rhetoric of law and order and identitarism. This approach is further legitimized by the government’s authoritarian and Islamist drift which does not meet with the approval of the AKP’s centrist voters. The creation of The Good Party may give rise to a to-ing and fro-ing of voters in the next elections, with the AKP faced with a new nationalist formation on its right.

One pitfall remains: since the constitutional referendum, the presidential character of the regime has moved one step forward and this might affect Meral Akşener’s strategy. The Turkish parliamentary system was based on legislative elections with a 10% entry threshold to parliament. Thus a party which totaled around 15% could play the role of an arbiter and have more political weight than its representativeness would warrant.4 Now the election of the president by direct universal suffrage has deprived Meral Akşener’s party of the possibility of such a pivotal role. Another danger is that some media have been denouncing an alleged complicity between The Good Party and the US and NATO5, and considering the current wave of anti-Americanism, the recent Russian-Turkish rapprochement and the accusations of “Gülenism”, she might well be charged with treason. Hence the polls fluctuate (LIEN A CREER), her party being credited with 6.4% of voting intentions while she herself is slated to win in the run-off if the election was held today. Will the rejection of authoritarianism be enough to make The Good Party a credible alternative?

1Pan-Turanism is an ideology advocating the political union of Turkish-speaking peoples and hence a rapprochement between Turkey and Azerbaijan and the other former Soviet Republics of central Asia.

2Term used to designate Fethulla Gülen’s brotherhood.

3After a period of activism with the « Idealists’ Hearths » (the MHP’s youth organisation), Akşener joined the liberal-conservatives of The True Pathy Party (DYP) in 1995 before returning to the MHP in 2001.

4For example, during the parliamentary debates over whether or not to allow head-scarves to be worn again at universities, the MHP aligned itself with the AKP against the CHP . However, at other times, the nationalist party sided with the Kemalists, as it did during the Bahçeli-Ecevit coalition from 1999 to 2002.

5Accusation to be found in the columns of the leftist-nationalist paper Aydinlik, among others.