The MHP candidate challenging the AKP
Will the extraordinary convention for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) take place or not? This is the main question in Turkish politics these days. It’s not just MHP supporters, but Justice and Development Party (AKP) cadres and even center leftists who are also watching the arm wrestling.
“Life is weird,” said a voter I was talking to the other day. “I have been voting for Kurds, for democracy… This time I will vote for Meral Akşener if she takes over the MHP leadership.” This is not a disjointed backlash. You can hear such feedback a lot lately when listening to Turkish voters who have been voting for the center-left or center-right to some extent.
The vital differences between the AKP and the MHP might have been the different approach to the solution process. Since that does not exist anymore, it is actually hard to name any. The coldish stance toward the European Union, the suspicious approach toward the West, a bit of isolationism while mostly following the free market rules, a pinch of Islamism and lots of nationalist sauce. That could be the definition for both parties.
The similarity is not surprising, though. Center-right defines the majority with nuances and with small changes depending on the conjuncture.
So what is with the excitement within the MHP? The opposition within the party has demanded a convention, only to be rejected by the party’s existing board. The likely winner of the convention, if there will be any, would probably be Akşener, a former interior minister under Tansu Çiller’s government. She comes from a conservative background and stands on the very statist side of the spectrum. Her main difference from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be that she is against Erdoğan’s presidency. Would she follow a policy that is closer to EU principles? I highly doubt that. Would she be willing to restart the solution process with the Kurds? That is highly unlikely. Why is there such excitement around her leadership? Well, because she is everything Erdoğan is, but she is not Erdoğan. Not losing a single election since 2002, Erdoğan became so powerful that he became the status quo himself and the sole power to transform the status quo from within.
He has been shaping Turkish politics in the way he wishes. He now has the backing of the army and most of the bureaucracy; he is unstoppable. This is where Akşener comes into the picture. Akşener symbolizes what had been familiar. She is the status quo pre-Erdoğan.
She is a woman, first of all. That is crucial. Going back to Erdoğan’s remarks about women that “women and men are not created equal but different,” Akşener symbolizes the anti-Erdoğan. She symbolizes that bit of Turkish conservatism of being a devout Muslim but not showing much of it in the public sphere. She knows how the state operates. She is from “the system.” Her stance toward the West could be shaped according to circumstances. She has kept silent about the Kurdish problem for now, which is a clever strategy for her.
Leftist voters who have lost hope with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and voters who are close to the center right who are fed up with Erdoğanism are looking to Akşener. Her position in politics either as the leader of the MHP – or the leader of any other movement – will shape Turkish politics at least to some extent.