Turkey’s neo-sultan managed to swing the April 16 constitutional referendum in his favor, but it’s a precarious, illegitimate win — and he knows it. The question now is how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will handle his biggest domestic threat, a woman no less, who has refused to join his political harem, drawing support — or, at the very least, respect — from unlikely quarters.
Meral Aksener, a 60-year-old seasoned politician and former Turkish interior minister, fired up the campaign trail in the lead-up to the April 16 constitutional referendum. Her rallies calling on Turks to reject Erdogan’s proposed constitutional amendments drew thousands of worshipful supporters who, like her, defied threats and intimidation to make their voices heard. Braving mid-speech power cuts, using battery-powered megaphones, disobeying demonstration bans by local ruling party officials, powering through thugs from her own erstwhile ultranationalist party mucking about her rallies, Aksener thundered on “like a tank,” as one of her female supporters at a rally put it.
She has been dubbed “Asena,” the she-wolf of Turkish mythology who gave birth to 10 half-human, half-wolf males. When accused of the most heinous catch-all political sin in Turkey today — belonging to exiled cleric and alleged coup plotter Fethullah Gulen’s movement — Aksener brushes it off with the no-nonsense brusqueness of a Turkish grandmother.
It’s worth combing through all these labels, plaudits, and allegations, since Aksener is a complex character whose political roots mirror the multilayered diversity of contemporary Turkish politics — and that, in essence, is what makes her a potent threat to Erdogan.
She is a grandmother, a nationalist — some would say ultranationalist — and a political warrior. She is not a Gulenist or a member of “FETO” (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization) as the Turkish government loves to call any of its detractors if it can’t plausibly accuse them of being Kurdish terrorists. She is not pro-Kurdish, of course; as a fervent nationalist, she has no love for Kurds who reject the wisdom of crushing their identity to become model Turks. The antipathy is mutual. She’s not an Islamist. But she is a self-declared pious Muslim, and her links to one of the forebears of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) honchos — plus her resistance to the military meddling in politics in the 1990s — lends her serious cred among the Islamist set.
As for that florid comparison to the she-wolf Asena, it does have some lupine consistency: Aksener leads a breakaway faction of the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) whose youth wing, the Grey Wolves, has a decades-long tradition of fascist violence.
Over the past few months, one of the more disturbing signs on the referendum campaign trail was the frequent display of the Grey Wolves gesture at AKP rallies supporting the “Yes” vote. A hand sign representing a wolf head made by holding up the index and little fingers while touching the thumb to the middle two digits, the Grey Wolves sign is seen as a Turkish equivalent of the Nazi salute. Under current MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, the party has been reformed, though the wolverine sign remains commonplace.
But it remains a disquieting display and a disturbing reminder of the unlikely alliances Erdogan has had to forge to get those sweeping presidential powers he has been seeking for so long.
Erdogan’s constitutional referendum train took to the rails in January when the president, riding a patriotic wave after the July 2016 coup attempt, managed to get parliamentary approval for a raft of 18 article amendments swapping Turkey’s parliamentary system for a presidential one. He secured a parliamentary majority for the measure by the skin of his teeth, only after he secured MHP support. Bahceli, the raspy-voiced leader of the MHP, was an unlikely convert to Erdogan’s executive presidency gospel: The aging ultranationalist had long dismissed it as a system with “no balances, no checks, and no brakes” and a “sultanate with no throne.”
But in the end, there were no brakes on Bahceli’s political machinations. Erdogan had helped Bahceli stave off a party leadership challenge by Aksener. The AKP strongman managed that by getting one of the country’s ever-pliant courts to rule against Aksener’s leadership bid. A former MHP senior official told the Economist that his former boss may have been offered a cabinet post after the 2019 elections. Deals were done, favors had to be returned; it’s the usual palace intrigue of Turkish politics today.
Aksener ferociously opposed Erdogan’s bid to scrap the system Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, enshrined nearly a century ago. She was one of the most effective “No” campaigners in the lead-up to the April 16 vote, and she’s still keeping up the fight. Her Twitter posts after Sunday’s vote reassured supporters that she is contesting the referendum results while calling on them to take to the streets.
In a strange way, the latest twist in the Turkish president’s unbridled power grab has been good for Aksener, and therein lies the biggest chink in Erdogan’s political armor. It comes not from the liberal, secular left — that part of the political spectrum has been effectively crushed by Erdogan’s crackdowns on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the main secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) — but from the nationalist right. This aspect tends to get overlooked in the international press, which limits itself to viewing Turkey primarily in a binary bind between conservative Islamists on one side and secular elites on the other — the trite, old “Black Turks” versus “White Turks” dichotomy.
But there’s more to Turkey today than meets the eye.
Aksener’s meteoric rise and the way she has managed to worm her way into the mainstream from the fascist, ultranationalist fringe is spectacular indeed.
Gender, for once, has been her biggest asset; the fact that she has managed to stick it to the boys in the macho world of Turkish conservative politics has earned her the love of some and the grudging respect of many others.
And nowhere is this girl-power play more evident than in her grasp of the symbolism of the hand gesture.
A good-looking woman with stylishly cropped hair set off by de rigueur pearl drop earrings, Aksener favors the sort of pantsuit ensembles made famous by fellow power granny Hillary Clinton. In the old days, especially during her high-profile breakup with the MHP, she was wont to flash the Grey Wolves sign at mass rallies. But over the past few months, that has given way to holding up her palm adorned with a henna imprint of the Turkish flag. During a TV interview, she explained that some of her young grassroots volunteers came up with the idea. By all accounts, it worked. With the post-coup press clampdowns ensuring that Turkish media barely covered the “No” campaign, Aksener’s henna flag went viral on social media.
Her former boss, the aging Bahceli, who has been facing the heat from his nationalist base for his tryst with the political devil, publicly disparaged her henna sign. Big mistake. Social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram exploded with all sorts of people — elderly veiled women, young soldiers, grizzled granddads — beaming with a henna flag on their palms. The hashtag #KinaliEllerHayirDiyor — or “Hennaed Hands Say No” (to a constitutional change) — trended for days. (Across swaths of Western and South Asia, henna is traditionally used as a feminine adornment and is especially important during marriage ceremonies when it signifies new beginnings.) In the Anatolian heartland, young soldiers going off to war also hennaed their palms in a display of warrior devotion. On International Women’s Day, March 8, some of the women’s rights advocates marching down Istanbul’s iconic Istiklal Street flashed flag-hennaed palms. One of them told Al-Monitor, “We will send henna powder to the leaders. They need it to remember the ordinary people will always find ways of peaceful resistance.”
Resist she has, in a spectacular way. At a campaign rally in the northwestern Turkish town of Tekirdag, she blasted an AKP smear campaign labeling her a Gulenist. “They should look to their right, they will see many Gulenist friends and relatives,” she said. “They should look to their left, they will also see many Gulenist friends and relatives. And then they should look in the mirror to see the real Gulenists.” The crowd roared. Erdogan’s falling out with Gulen, his former Islamist ally who helped bring him to power, has seen an estimated 130,000 people suspended and sacked from public sector jobs, which are being filled by hastily hired, often unqualified candidates, many of them from other Islamist groups. The nationalists are concerned about the economic downturn, and Aksener has hammered home her message that the neo-sultan is fiddling in his Ottoman castle, picking fights with EU allies while the Turkish economy burns.
Her rejection of Erdogan’s power grab tapped into the deep disapproval among MHP supporters for a constitutional amendment. According to one Turkish pollster, only 35 percent of MHP voters cast a “Yes” ballot in Sunday’s poll. That razor-thin “Yes” win is not just the secular leftist and Kurdish rejection of the Turkish president; it also reflects the nationalists’ disenchantment with their own leaders and with Erdogan, despite his attempts to woo the nationalist base. In recent years, the MHP has seen its popularity drop in the polls, with the party losing 39 parliamentary seats (from 80) between the June and November 2015 elections.
Bahceli’s cronies may still support their party chief. But the party rank and file would like to see a new, dynamic leader — if only Erdogan, the consummate political player, would let that happen. But Erdogan will not, of course, not if he can help it, because the Iron Lady of Turkish politics is his biggest political rival on the horizon.
Despite the referendum loss, Aksener is well-placed to make inroads into Erdogan’s Islamist base. A pious Muslim who frequently mentions that she prays five times a day, she was interior minister in the coalition government led by Islamist granddaddy Necmettin Erbakan until the military dismissed her as a result of what is called the February 1997 “postmodern coup.” Her resistance to the military made her a national figure, earning her the respect of many pro-democracy Turks from different political backgrounds. The events of February 1997 are still alive in the Turkish collective memory, and Aksener is politician enough to grab every opportunity to remind audiences — particularly Islamists who felt persecuted by the military in the 1990s — of her pro-democracy creds.
She has also touted a softer version of Turkish nationalism than the old MHP boys, and that could lend her some tactical — if not necessarily ideological — appeal among Turkey’s battered leftist-secularists desperate for any political figure who can defeat Erdogan. Since the April 16 referendum, the Ankara rumor mill has been on overdrive about the Turkish Iron Lady’s plans to form a new political party. “She is the ideal candidate to unite conservative voters, secular voters, and a large portion of the nationalist vote,” notes Paris-based Turkish journalist Emre Demir. “There are persistent rumors that she will create a new center-right party, which can bring together the old AKP figures that Erdogan has sidelined, a number of center-right figures, as well as nationalist figures ejected by Bahceli. If that happens, it could be the only party that can threaten Erdogan’s one-party rule.”
Aksener herself says very little and just enough to keep the political suspense at boiler pitch. “They all talk about Mr. Erdogan. What if I am the country’s next president?” she famously asked a BBC reporter. Her supporters at rallies are known to chant “Prime Minister Meral,” a cry that must surely gall Erdogan ahead of the October 2019 general elections.
The interesting thing now is how Erdogan will respond to the threat posed by this political she-wolf who has refused to be co-opted or silenced. He could treat her like he did his erstwhile biggest rival, the charismatic Kurdish HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas: toss her in jail. But it won’t be as easy to imprison a popular nationalist as it is to throw a Kurdish politician behind bars in Turkey. Her hardcore supporters can unleash rowdy havoc on the streets, and they are just the sort of shock troops Erdogan himself uses when he needs a thug act or two. And then, don’t forget Erdogan is an Islamist. If he has to put a devout Turkish Muslim granny — as opposed to a godless Kurdish woman — behind bars, it won’t sit well with his religious base. The sultan has swung many impossible political flips in the past, but this gladiator fight, whichever way it goes, will be a treat to witness.
Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images