New party leader Meral Akşener’s next move

New party leader Meral Akşener’s next move

This long holiday and vacation period has given time for politicians to re-establish relations with their party base and listen to the masses. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been very quiet for the past two weeks, while even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opted to stay away from public speeches for at least a couple of days. 

One front that has not been on vacation is the new center-right movement led by former Interior Minister Meral Akşener and her allies. Over the past two weeks, Akşener and her colleagues have managed to recruit Koray Aydın, a former minister and an important figure in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which Akşener also used to be a member of until recently.

Expectations are high, but Akşener seems to be moving slowly and modestly. So what should we expect?

Hakan Bayrakçı, a leading pollster and the founder of the SONAR research company, claims that Akşener’s party would win at least 15 percent of the vote if elections were held today. “Akşener could sway CHP voters but her main aim will be to challenge the [ruling Justice and Development Party] AK Party,” Bayrakçı said. He added that Akşener’s biggest task will be to get her organizational structure in place nationwide.

Prof. Tanju Tosun, a leading sociologist from Ege University, has claimed that despite her name recognition, a female politician will still have a hard time winning support in conservative Anatolia. “Traditionally, it is not an easy ballgame. But Akşener is well aware of this and I think she is using her surrogates to overcome that difficulty,” said Tosun.

Ümit Özdağ, Akşener’s biggest foreign policy asset, spoke with daily Sözcü last week about preparations for the new party. He gave many intricate details, but the headline that emerged from the interview was: “We will sell 13 presidential planes and turn Beştepe [presidential complex] into a university.” His followers know that Özdağ is bigger and better than these statements, and that he should not limit himself to some flashy headlines just for the sake of opposition.

In response to AK Party heavyweight Hayati Yazıcı’s harsh criticism of her new party, Akşener opted to put things in writing. “We are not coming to fill a vacuum. We don’t think attitudes like this will help the political atmosphere,” she wrote on her Twitter account. “Our aim is to move politics to a healthier place, to build a more competitive base and win people’s votes by raising their intellectual capacity.”

Akşener’s aides recently told me that her choice of words regarding Erdoğan has been extremely careful and delicate so far. “She knows the value of Erdoğan in his base and how they protect him,” one very close aide told me. “She will always be fair in her criticism. We understand that President Erdoğan knows this.”

Not coincidentally, Erdoğan has so far been extra careful not to attack Akşener’s movement in person. His surrogates, ministers and one economic advisor have criticized her, but he has been treading very carefully. If nothing changes after all the in-house cleaning of the AK Party and the ongoing debate over “metal fatigue,” Erdoğan may even prefer to clear the path for Akşener until 2019. 

But Akşener’s hardest immediate task is fighting the propaganda from pro-AKP newspapers trying to link her party to the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), and Özdağ will be her biggest weapon in winning that battle.