Portrait of the week: Meral Akşener
Meral Akşener had been wooed for years to found a Turkish political party of her own. Obviously, some regarded her as good leadership material. But she did not make her move until late last month. Her Good Party sets sail at a time when Turkey is under an extended state of emergency and some other opposition leaders are languishing in jail: a taste of the potential perils ahead.
Though often compared to France's Front National leader Marine Le Pen as she hails from the far-right National Action Party (MHP), Akşener is more reminiscent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Stubborn, but pragmatic and conservative, they both value predictability and stability. Akşener is also more of a centrist than a stereotypical representative of the MHP, and began as a member of parliament for the centre-right True Path Party (DYP) in 1994.
Her background at the MHP is a family affair: Akşener's father Tahir Ömer was a supporter of the establishment Republican People's Party (CHP) until the 1960 coup, but then developed an interest in the nationalist far-right. Akşener's beloved role model and brother Nihat Gürer became the MHP’s provincial leader in their native town of İzmit. Akşener was considered to be a "bookworm" and studied history at Istanbul University.
As bookish as she was, Akşener was also a fiery activist in her early years. She once remarked that she never wore high heels as an undergraduate in the 1970s because "she needed to run fast" from both the security forces and rival leftist factions. During her studies, she also met the love of her life and now husband Tuncer. He was a Maoist at the time, but in Akşener's own words, "he converted” due to her stubbornness.
After the 1980 military coup, Akşener paused her political activities and concentrated on academia. She had already pursued PhD-level studies in history, specialising in Ottoman era court records. She also gave birth to a son, Fatih, in 1983, and transformed into a "tiger mom", apparently travelling every other week to France when son Fatih was studying at university there to cook, clean and wash his clothes.
After almost a decade as an academic and housewife in the 1980s, in 1994 she entered parliament and by 1996 had become Turkey’s first female interior minister, aged 40.
Her sudden ascendance became a source of contention years later, as her rivals questioned who was “behind her rise". Current MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli had a booklet published in 2016 linking her with Fethullah Gülen, prior to the July 15 coup attempt the government says the Pennsylvania-based cleric masterminded. Akşener's supporters in the MHP were quick to dismiss the claims, citing the late Alparslan Türkeş, the "godfather" of the MHP, as the main force backing her.
It is more likely though that her chemistry with Tansu Çiller, who became Turkey’s first female prime minister in 1993, and a stroke of fate led to her rapid rise. If it were not for a car crash near the western town of Susurluk in November 1996, the ministerial position would not have been vacant.
A police chief, a far-right militant wanted for murder and a former beauty queen were killed and a DYP member of parliament was injured after the car they were travelling in hit a tractor. The ensuing “Susurluk scandal” exposed ties between the mafia, politicians and security forces, dubbed the "deep state". As revelations of extrajudicial killings and torture emerged, Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar became implicated in the allegations and was forced to resign. But when Ağar handed over the ministry to Akşener, he said it an "elder brother” was merely “handing over the job to his younger sister".
Ironically, the two of them had reportedly coined the term "deep state" in 1995. Veteran newspaper columnist Ertuğrul Özkök wrote in 1997 that he heard the term "deep state" first from Akşener. Özkök said Ağar mentioned the phrase shortly afterwards, saying "the deep state won't let go of certain issues".
Akşener soon made the headlines after assuming the post by branding Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan a "seed of the Armenians". She then attempted an apology by saying she had referred to the "Armenian race in general, not the Armenians living in Turkey". In 2015, however, she was more genuinely apologetic, referring to her statement as a "gaffe".
Akşener maintained a tough image. When Police Chief Alaaddin Yüksel refused to step down after she replaced him, Akşener responded by taking the new commissioner to police headquarters in the middle of the night, breaking down the door of Yüksel's office and installing the new chief.
As the staunchly secularist military moved to dislodge Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s coalition government in 1997, Akşener made a name for herself by standing up to the generals. One top general even threatened to "impale her on a wooden stick". Akşener reportedly retaliated by issuing orders for the surveillance of the generals.
As the DYP disintegrated, in 2001 she flirted with the newly formed AK Party that would shortly go on to dominate Turkish politics till the present day. But she quickly returned to her nationalist roots, becoming a member of the MHP and chief advisor to its leader Bahçeli.
Akşener had her ups and downs inside the MHP. In 2004, she was chosen as the MHP candidate to become Istanbul mayor. She lost the race, but became the party’s deputy parliamentary spokesperson in 2007. She shone in the position, but perhaps too much: Bahçeli reportedly got annoyed when her name began to be mentioned for higher posts, such as possible candidate to stand against then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the first direct presidential election in 2014.
Erdoğan and Akşener retained cordial relations up until recently: he was the best man at Akşener's son’s wedding in 2015. The same year, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu offered Akşener a ministerial post in the transition government. Pro-government journalist Abdülkadir Selvi wrote at the time that "her honour is our [AK Party's] honour".
In November 2015, the MHP dropped her from their candidate list. From that time onwards, she was sidelined, and eventually expelled from the party in September 2016. Her political life seemed to be over, but she bounced back within a year to found the Good Party.
Akşener is not short of ambition: when the crowds gathered at her Good Party's founding ceremony chanting "Prime Minister Meral", she hushed them and corrected: "President Meral".
Pious, nationalist, traditionalist, and stubborn: both courteous and also rancorous, a domestic and a social butterfly, and an ever-reborn phoenix, Akşener is full of surprises.
Though never leaving classical right-wing nationalist rhetoric behind, Akşener said that she was impressed by the Gezi protests of 2013. One of Akşener's key aides has also been reported to have contacts with the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party.
The question is: will her rival Erdoğan be able to bash her as easily as he thumps his male opponents?