In recent days, you’ve probably heard the name Meral Akşener more than any other politician. She’s become one of the most influential figures in recent political history, thanks to both her actions and inactions. Before her rollercoaster relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, she first gained prominence during the February 28th post-modern military intervention period in 1997. And that era presents us with a somewhat blurry portrait. Depending on your perspective, you might see her as a hero who resisted a postmodern coup, or as a supporter of the coup itself.
Until she was forced to resign following the explosion of the Susurluk scandal involving the close relationship among the deep state in Turkey, the Grey Wolves and the Turkish mafia, she wasn’t a well-known figure in politics. She was elected as a deputy for the first time in 1995 and assumed the role of Minister of the Interior a year later. Apart from her youth in the Idealist Hearths, her resume includes a lost bid for a mayor’s office. Why was she elevated to such an important position after the Susurluk debacle and during the storm of February 28th? Were they hoping she would simply manage the situation, or did they expect her to resist with the extra credit of being a woman? Only Tansu Çiller, her leader at the time, and herself can answer that question.
During her brief seven-month tenure as minister, she made unexpected moves due to her lack of experience. Her polemic with the de facto leader of the February 28th Junta, General Çevik Bir, and her dismissal of Alaattin Yüksel, who claimed immunity with the label of being part of the deep state, are memorable moments. When Mehmet Ağar, who had to resign after the Susurluk scandal, entered politics, he wanted to remove Yüksel, who had become the Police Chief. Like Necmettin Erbakan locking himself in a room after losing the presidency of TOBB, Yüksel didn’t vacate his position. One night, Akşener, accompanied by her security detail, stormed the police department, placed Yüksel’s belongings outside the door, and seated Kemal Çelik in the chair.
The leakage of documents and memoranda related to the coup, which put the Western Working Group in a difficult position, also went down in history as a major success of the National Police Intelligence during her time. However, when you read her statements about fulfilling the topics in the National Security Council’s statement, the picture becomes less clear. Her motivation for standing tall could be a commitment to democracy, or perhaps it was a sense of indebtedness and an effort to defend Çiller. However, seeing Akşener again in power never became a reality.
When DYP failed to pass the electoral threshold and Çiller exited the political stage, she remained like a footballer with her contract in hand. When the AKP was being established, they tried to convey the message, “We’ve taken off the National View shirt; we are now a party open to the center.” Akşener was one of the party’s key founders until the last minute, but inexplicably, she disembarked from the ship. She returned to her political roots at the MHP and served as the Deputy Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly for two terms, which is eight years. With her firm yet witty demeanor during the sessions she presided over, she stood out from other speakers and solidified her popularity. In 2015, when Devlet Bahçeli excluded Akşener, who was waiting for the Speaker’s position, and gave the position of Deputy Speaker to Koray Aydın, she was removed from the list of parliamentary candidates when the government couldn’t be formed and the election was repeated on November 1.
Akşener, along with Ümit Özdağ, Koray Aydın, and Sinan Oğan, raised the flag. They collected enough signatures for an extraordinary congress to topple the party leader. But then, Erdoğan intervened. Up until that point, Bahçeli had hurled the most severe insults at the AKP leader. Suddenly, he became the most loyal ally. Bahçeli both kept his position and gained a substantial piece of the new regime that had just been established. The dissidents formed their own party. In the İYİ Party, surprisingly, Akşener assumed leadership and gradually eliminated her rivals one by one. Koray Aydın kissed the hand he couldn’t bend, while Özdağ left shortly after. Now, it has become a one-person movement with marginal views and no established cadre.
Akşener projected an image of embarking on a journey towards the center of politics with her new party. The void left by the destruction of ANAP and DYP was both a significant opportunity and a necessity for the country’s future. İYİ Party didn’t aim for the small plot that the MHP occupied; it aimed for the large chunk occupied by Erdoğan. However, even at the formation stage, the project was handicapped by the right-wing nationalists who were reintegrated. Figures like Hasan Atila Uğur and Ali Türkşen didn’t make the idea of being a centrist party seem credible. (Now, Ahmet Zeki Üçok has taken their place.) For nationalist politics, a few loud slogans were sufficient, but to convince the masses in the center-right, you needed to put in some effort. The new course they charted brought about new debates. Was Akşener merely Bahçeli’s spare tire? Did Erdoğan want to change the worn-out tire after speaking with her? Or was he satisfied with the opposition’s division?
The suspicions that began to emerge after the 2018 elections intensified following the 2023 elections. In the previous election, she ran as a candidate alongside Muharrem İnce against Erdoğan. On the night when the presidency was handed to Erdoğan on a silver platter, İnce, who had gone to bed after sending a WhatsApp message saying, “The man won,” took all the limelight, causing Akşener’s candidacy to be nearly forgotten. The election fraud that reached its peak with the 2017 referendum gained new dimensions in every ballot box, and the sole role of the opposition was to prevent a legitimacy crisis. If Turkey can still swallow the democracy role, the lion’s share of credit goes to the opposition.
Erdoğan needs the opposition that plays in midfield but doesn’t come near the penalty area. This way, he continues to stay in a slightly better position than Saddam. When the ball somehow approaches the penalty area, he avoids conceding a goal thanks to his men within the opposition. Many are now growing in number who interpret Akşener’s decision to dissolve the alliance table two months before the election in this way. It’s as if on March 3rd, she heard about Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy for the first time. If she truly believed İmamoğlu and Yavaş would win, shouldn’t she have put her weight behind them in advance?
She demonstrated in her recent ‘historic’ speech that she hasn’t lost any of her determination to overturn the table. She highlighted Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy as the reason for their defeat. However, there were two ballots in play, and as the leader of a party that had fallen below 10% in parliamentary elections, she didn’t utter a word of self-criticism. And she gave Erdoğan the news he had been waiting for: Let everyone run independently in local elections. However, without an alliance, many places, including Ankara and Istanbul, can slip away. If we add that A Haber broadcasted Akşener’s speech at Kocatepe, the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
The fact that the ‘FETÖ’ investigation, based on a flimsy secret witness statement about Akşener, was closed seven years before this speech makes the picture more understandable. It’s worth noting that the decision was made after her conversation with Erdoğan. When we said, “If you don’t take away the magic wand that turns those you touch into terrorists from Erdoğan’s hands, no one is safe,” we meant this. Akşener is the latest example of the prediction that if you don’t oppose the injustice of the ‘FETÖ’ accusation, that guillotine will eventually behead you. People say this: If you couldn’t speak up for the orphaned teachers, elderly shopkeepers, or even postpartum women, could you at least have defended your own rights?
Now, go back and read the title again to make sure you read it correctly.
*Bulent Korucu is journalist, colmmunist and former director of Turkish Cihan News Agency which was shut down by the Turkish Government.
This article was originally published on TR724.com in Turkish and has been translated into English by Politurco.