Erdogan vs. Aksener: In Turkey a Political Realignment Looms
By LTC Sargis Sangari and Steven Weingartner
Although Turkey’s Erdogan has always polled highly since the birth of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, recent polling and opinion pieces out of Ankara are pointing to growing public dissatisfaction with his regime. The word on the street in Ankara seems to be that the AKP and President Erdogan are one and the same, and that if he somehow lost the presidency the party would quickly break apart.
Over the course of the past year Erdogan has consolidated his hold on the government, ramming through changes in the constitution that have given him a great deal of control over the affairs of state. He has become dictator in fact if not in name. Even so, he is facing a serious challenge from outside the party, in the person of Meral Aksener, which may soon force him out of office.
Meral Aksener has a PhD in History and is a former minister of the interior. She is credited with having faced down the perpetrators of the abortive 1997 coup, in which the chief of the Turkish general staff supposedly threatened to impale her in front of her office. Since her election to parliament as the nationalist MHP’s Istanbul representative, she has become the voice of a growing majority in the MHP who are unhappy with the party’s elected head, the septuagenarian Devlit Bahceli.
Following the 2015 elections, when the AKP lost their outright majority in parliament, it was Bahceli who signaled the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP’s) willingness to stand in another round of snap elections. This move proved disastrous when the MHP lost half of their seats to the AKP and the liberal Republicans Peoples Party (CHP). In the wake of this electoral debacle the party’s rank-and-file demanded Bahceli’s resignation. Bahceli refused to go. Seeing an opportunity, Aksener exploited the resultant political breach at the MHP’s annual conference in Istanbul in May 2016, threatening to leave the party if Bacheli did not step down. It was then estimated that as much as 80 percent of the MHP base would join her if she left.
Through the spring and summer of 2017 Aksener has been vigorously campaigning to win the support of both MHP and AKP voters. In mid August she filed the required paperwork for starting her own political party, the Center Democratic Party (CDP). Recent polling indicates that much as 25 percent of AKP voters and a super-majority of MHP voters have joined the CDP. In speeches, she has advocated accession to the EU and shifting Turkey’s economic focus away from the construction of housing to expanding Turkey’s industrial output. Her message resonates with many voters. But her main appeal to her steadily growing base is that she is neither Erdogan or Bahceli.
Both Erdoga and Aksener enjoy enthusiastic support among their followers. But most Turks are growing increasingly weary of celebrity politicians and the cults of personality that form around them. They are troubled by wage stagnation, high unemployment, rampant government corruption, and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots of Turkish society. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poor – and more numerous — and the middle class is shrinking. This was the situation in 2001 that the AKP capitalized on in their successful bid for political power. The same situation may soon result in the AKP’s ouster, with the Aksener and her Center Democratic Party seizing the reins of power from Erdogan and his cronies.
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LTC Sargis Sangari is the founder and CEO of NEC-SC. Steven Weingartner is NEC-SC’s Senior Editor.