Can a new party challenge Turkey’s ruling AKP?

Can a new party challenge Turkey’s ruling AKP?

Meral Akşener, a former deputy speaker of the Turkish Parliament, stated on Aug. 22 that she has officially started the process of establishing a new party, in a bid to build an alternative to President Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti). She made the statement in a ceremony to welcome Koray Aydın, a former deputy chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who decided to join Akşener’s movement. 

Akşener herself used to be a member of the MHP but was expelled from the party by its leader Devlet Bahçeli. Before the MHP, Akşener was a member of the center-right True Path Party (DYP), which is no longer represented in parliament.

It is certainly a positive step for another female politician to lead a major party, after Tansu Çiller of the DYP, who served as Turkey’s prime minister in the 1990s. In the male-dominated Turkish politics such a move is refreshing, but it more not enough to pose a challenge to a strong leader like Erdoğan.

Having been part of the MHP since being in the party’s “gray wolves” youth organization, Aydın was known as a senior figure in the party. He had represented the MHP (as its secretary general) in protocol talks for the three-party coalition in 1999 and then served as Public Works Minister. 

Aydın stated he will be in charge of the formation of the national organization of the new party (the name of which has still not been disclosed). Without Aydın’s participation it would have been more uncertain whether the new party would be able to exceed the 10 percent national threshold in the parliamentary elections, but with Aydın there it certainly has more of a chance. 

On the other hand, the chances of a divided MHP staying above the 10 percent line have become questionable. In the November 2015 election the MHP got 11.9 percent of the vote.

Ümit Özdağ, another former MHP who now acts along with Akşener, recently told Hürriyet that the new party, which is expected to be officially established in October, would be a “center party,” targeting centrist votes. With that remark one could assume that the new party would be hoping to attract names from the AK Parti, targeting it especially in Turkey’s bigger cities. However, so far only those who have resigned from the MHP have joined Akşener. 

Those names could attract MHP voters who are against Bahçeli’s ongoing policy of giving strong and strategic support for Erdoğan. They could also attract some voters from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in rural Anatolia due to their staunch nationalistic stance, especially on the Kurdish problem. But it is not clear how they will attract urban center-right voters: neither the rhetoric nor the names in the showcase so far seem up to that task. After all, to attract center-right votes, in addition to nationalist names Akşener needs some popular figures known in center-right politics, more women alongside her, and younger people.

Both Erdoğan and AK Parti spokesman Mahir Ünal have warned Akşener indirectly of possible infiltration of the party by members of the illegal network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding Turkey’s July 2016 military coup attempt. Indeed, at one point last year Aydın himself hinted that there could be Gülen-linked people around Akşener, but now it seems he is convinced and is standing alongside her. These warnings about Gülen could prevent newcomers, especially from the parliamentary group of the AK Parti, from taking the leap to the new party, amid fears about being arrested on accusations of links to Gülen. 

Still, Turkish politics has always tended to be open to the ventures of new parties - if they emerge at the right time. The AK Parti is a good example of that, as it took power just a year after its establishment in 2001.

In summary, Akşener’s new party certainly has the potential to earn a place in Turkish politics and be taken into consideration in the power game. But to do think she should take additional steps to widen the party’s political spectrum.