Turkey's lifeline or another false hope?

PUBLISHED: 13:00 06 November 2017

Turkey's former interior minister and deputy parliament speaker Meral Aksener, addresses her party's first meeting

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Turkey has just got its 93rd political party. But, says SUNA ERDEM, the Good Party and its leader Meral Aksener could bring the troubled country the rejuvenation it desperately needs

The Good Party. It sounds like a Netflix mini-series. But in Turkey, it’s very much a reality – a new political grouping on which desolate souls wishing away President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s volatile 14-year rule have projected their desperate hopes.

Last week Meral Aksener, a former Turkish interior minister, made the much-anticipated announcement that she was forming a centre-right party to challenge Erdogan’s seemingly unassailable dominance.

“Democracy is under threat,” Aksener told the crowds gathered in an Ankara municipal hall to cheer her on as she unveiled her Good Party (Iyi Parti). “The postmodern era of the ‘national chief’ has begun, but this is unsustainable. The people are tired, the state is worn out, public order is collapsing.”

She was flanked by many of the 200 nationalists, conservatives and even leftists who joined her as co-founders. “Prime Minister Meral!” the crowds cheered. “Not Prime Minister, President!” she bellowed. The gauntlet has been well and truly thrown.

Erdogan is very popular in Turkey. At the head of his Justice and Development Party (AK) he has won every election for the past decade and a half. But he has become increasingly controversial as he abandoned his early liberal, pro-European reforms and progressively slid into authoritarianism. He has been instrumental in jailing tens of thousands of opponents, including journalists and academics, and sacking many more in the civil service and the judiciary following a failed coup attempt against him last year.

Fears for Turkey’s future under Erdogan intensified further in April when he won a hotly-contested referendum to seal his plans for a ‘superpresidency’, which abolishes the post of prime minister and strips executive powers from parliament.

It was during this referendum that Aksener, who last served in government in the 1990s, came to renewed prominence. She publicly shunned her Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which was supporting Erdogan, and bravely campaigned in an atmosphere of high tension, misinformation, intimidation and violence.

Although Erdogan won the referendum, the ‘No’ campaign unified Turks from all walks of life in a way that had not happened since AK Party swept to power. His narrow victory – after what many suspect were dirty tricks and with the loss of Turkey’s biggest cities – gave the tiniest glimmer of hope that he could be challenged.

This is probably why Aksener has managed to attract a wide range of supporters. She not only has disaffected nationalists from her old party, one co-founder is a social democratic MP who has just defected. There’s a former Central Bank governor and a former public works minister, as well as relatives of well-known former conservative politicians. She can even boast a relative of Kemal Ataturk, the deified founder of modern Turkey, whose own party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been a desultory main opposition party to Erdogan.

The Good Party, on paper, has a lot going for it. For a start, as Hurriyet columnist Deniz Zeyrek pointed out, although it becomes the 93rd political party currently in existence in the country (Turks do like forming political parties, although most never see an election), it is one of the few to attract attention.

At the same time, Turkey’s fluid political landscape means that if a party does succeed in making waves, it can go all the way. Exhibit A is AK Party itself, which went from founding to government in less than two years – about the same time Aksener has to make her case before the next big elections.

Then there is Aksener’s character. Dubbed Asena, or ‘She-Wolf’, for her tenacity, she has a reputation for the kind of toughness Turks admire in a leader.

During the referendum she caught all the missiles hurled at her and threw them back. When the power was deliberately cut as she was due to speak at a rally, she gave her speech anyway, to the light of smartphone torches, and the news went viral.

When accused of treason, she took to the stage with a henna tattoo of the Turkish flag on her palms – another gimmick that got widespread coverage. She has, of course, been attacked for allegedly supporting Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Muslim cleric blamed for the coup attempt, but so far that hasn’t derailed her.

Her less recent past also demonstrates steel, as she navigated a brutal era in Turkish politics when she became interior minister of a coalition in 1996. Turkey was waging a dirty war against Kurdish separatists and it was also the era of suspect ‘mystery murders’, mostly of dissident leftists and Kurds.

The Deep State of shadowy nationalists and military types had more power than politicians. In 1997, the fiercely secularist military forced the Islamist-led government out of office in what is known as a ‘postmodern’ coup. Aksener became famous for resisting, rebuffing a threat by an army general to ‘impale her on a greasy spike’. Today, she laughs at threats dished out by Erdogan supporters.

The Good Party’s political positioning gives it potential – it’s the only way to make an impact in the largely right-wing country and attacks precisely Erdogan’s constituency.

Turkey’s main opposition CHP, led by feeble leftist Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was never a threat, while Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, though charismatic, could never aspire to power as the Kurdish issue is too divisive. In any case, he is now languishing in jail on terror charges.

Aksener has managed to gather an interesting group around her – former ambassadors, businessmen and senior military figures as well as some star signings, including former Google executive Taylan Yilmaz regularly cited in the media as Turkey’s ‘genius child’ for his PhD at Stanford and Silicon Valley success.

The party’s aims are attractive, and include immediate implementation of European Union standards on the freedom of press. But, perhaps most importantly, Aksener promises to return Turkey to a proper parliamentary system.

That’s something to pull at the heartstrings of the millions of ‘No’ voters. A recent opinion poll, published even before Aksener’s party was formed, found that it could become the third party in parliament – at least. With an identity and a strong performance in the public arena, this could increase.

And yet, all isn’t as rosy as it seems – not for Aksener or her potential supporters. Aksener’s hard-line credentials may play well with the old nationalist base and many of the Turkish secularist elite, who really don’t care that much about whether or not Aksener was complicit in mystery murders. But there are many other, more liberal-minded voters who would blanch at her past tough stance against Kurds and slanders against other minorities.

Some of the founders are also found wanting – for instance, a former senior paramilitary commander whose name has been linked to the suspicious death of a party leader in 2009.

There is also Aksener’s chequered political career – Erdogan was a successful mayor for nearly a decade before he became prime minister, while former academic Aksener was minister for a year, left politics for 10, and then served without impact as a nationalist MP.

Aksener boasts that she is strong precisely because she can rattle Erdogan and doesn’t fear him. But when he decides to destroy a challenger, he usually succeeds. Anyone who might have posed a threat – from former prime ministers down – has gone. Erdogan has just engineered the resignation of a number of long-serving, powerful AK Party mayors.

So, Aksener faces an enormous uphill struggle. And yes, she is a flawed candidate, but Turkey is desperate.

Timing is all. Today, even rural Turks, the kind who liked Erdogan’s brand of devout social conservatism, have become upset because they see him as opening up agriculture to global markets and threatening their livelihoods. And rumours of discontent within the tight-knit AK Party have been around for a while. Even loyal social democrats, especially the women, are tempted, having lost patience with politicians of their own persuasion, as I found out when I contacted an old friend and diehard CHP supporter.

“Some people in my circle are going to vote for (Aksener),” she told me. “I might actually vote for her myself. At least she’s a woman – so far, the men haven’t been worth shit.”

Suna Erdem is a freelance journalist and former Turkey correspondent for the Times and Reuters

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