Meral Aksener doesn’t run from fights. Turkey’s former interior minister is known informally as asena, or she-wolf. When the country's military took steps in 1997 to remove the government from power, she took a stand against its leaders. A general threatened to have the young lawmaker impaled “on an oily spike that we’ll put in front of the ministry.” Testifying about the conversation in court in 2013, she brushed the comment off. “I did what I was supposed to do,” she said.
As she once defied the military, her supporters hope she can stand in the way of the collapse of Turkey’s democracy, one year after another attempted coup. A veteran nationalist, Aksener campaigned vigorously against a constitutional overhaul proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that is set to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with one dominated by his own powerful presidency. Erdogan won a narrow, disputed victory in the referendum on April 16, but Aksener won herself a far higher profile. She drew throngs to raucous campaign rallies around the country where she urged the public to vote ‘no.’ Huge crowds chanted, “Prime Minister Meral!”
Now, Aksener’s name (pronounced “Ak-she-ner”) has been whispered as a possible challenger to Erdogan in the presidential election expected in 2019. Aides reveal to TIME she is planning to announce a new political party. Speaking to TIME at her Istanbul home in May, her face lit up when she spoke about how she rattles Erdogan. “I ruin his comfort zone,” she says, “because he knows I am a real competitor.”
"To beat him, you have to play his game."
Few would dare stand up to this regime. After a combined 14 years as prime minister and president, Erdogan has acted to suppress nearly every source of opposition, sidelining other leaders within his party, jailing opposition lawmakers, and censoring critical news organizations. He has done so while winning a series of elections, modeling a style of politics similar to the conservative brand of populism that swept Europe and America in 2016.
The repression accelerated in the aftermath of the failed and bloody coup one year ago, on July 15, 2016. More than 50,000 people have been detained so far, including journalists, students, and civil servants. The crackdown has intensified lately. In July, police arrested 10 human rights activists including Amnesty International’s Turkey director on “terrorism” charges.
Opposition politicians are not immune. In June, a court sentenced an opposition lawmaker to 25 years in prison in connection with a government leak case, one of a dozen now behind bars. The leader of Turkey’s largest opposition CHP party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, staged a 280-mile protest march from Ankara to Istanbul in response, that culminated in a vast “justice” rally in Istanbul that was the largest show of opposition in years. “This is the era of dictatorship,” he told the crowd.
But the grey-haired, bespectacled opposition leader is in poor position to mount a genuine challenge to Erdogan. His secular-establishment CHP has been unable to win a national election for 15 years, and observers of Turkish politics think he lacks the ruthlessness to take on the President. “Even people in my family, they think Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a great guy, but he just doesn’t know how to play Erdogan’s game. And to beat him, you have to play his game,” says Gonul Tol, the director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Meral Aksener on the other hand, the way she conveys the message of those who are opposed to Erdogan, or who are uncomfortable with his rule, I think she’s done a great job in terms of communicating that message.”
Aksener poses a unique threat to Erdogan because her brand of politics draws from a similar pool of pro-business, religious, and nationalist voters as the president. She is unapologetically conservative, and has been called the Turkish answer to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. She is hawkish toward Kurdish separatists. She says she would allow Turkey’s three million Syrian refugees to remain in the country, but she has unspecified “concerns” about their presence. Still, she insists she can attract support from across the political spectrum, including Kurds, noting her frequent campaign visits to the Kurdish-majority southeast. She also rejects any comparison between her style of politics and the racism of the European far right. “We don’t do politics based on race or ethnicity,” she says. “Our definition of the nation is based on shared memories, share ties, and shared joys.”
Yet her principled opposition to Erdogan's constitutional power-grab allowed her to expand her appeal to disaffected members of AKP and even to some left-leaning voters. Unlike the secular republican Kilicdaroglu, who has been criticized for failing to reach beyond his base of elite urbanites, Aksener has the potential to undermine the president’s coalition. “She is a major political threat to President Erdogan,” says Aykan Erdemir, a liberal Turkish politician who served in parliament with Aksener. “Aksener could be an attractive candidate to Turkey’s center-right electorate, and so she has the potential to steal voters from Erdogan and the AKP.”
"I believe in the rule of law"
Born in 1956 in Izmit, a medium-sized city outside of Istanbul, Aksener is the descendant of immigrants from Greece. She developed an interest in politics as a young girl when Izmit elected Turkey’s first woman mayor, Layla Atakan. After earning a PhD in history, she quit her post as a university department chair in 1994, winning a seat in parliament a year later as a member of the secular conservative True Path Party.
Within a few years of entering parliament, Aksener became a central player in Turkey’s national political drama. She was appointed interior minister in a coalition government led by Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. It was an era of political violence, as the Turkish state waged an increasingly dirty war with Kurdish separatists. The tumult came to a crescendo in the winter and spring of 1997 when the military issued an ultimatum to the government in what became known as the “postmodern coup.”
It was then that Aksener made her stand against the armed forces’ meddling, rebuffing General Cetin Saner’s threat to “impale” her on a spike. She established her independence from Turkey’s military, which has pushed aside four elected governments since 1960. She also declined to press charges against Saner, showing restraint that stands in contrast with Erdogan’s ferocious response to the 2016 coup. “She was not vengeful, which is something you cannot say about Erdogan,” says Erdemir, who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Then and now, Aksener continues to insist on a core conservative principle: rule of law. Her insistence on institutions and procedure stands in contrast with Erdogan’s emotional populism. “Erdogan’s world is black and white,” she says. “I don’t believe in the rule of right and wrong. I believe in the rule of law,” she says. She also criticizes Erdogan’s traditionalist views on women. “He prefers us at home,” she says.
But Aksener has a long association with some of the harder edges of Turkish politics. After she was forced out of office in the 1997 coup, Aksener re-entered parliament 10 years later as a member of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a party that traces its origins to the brutal past of Turkey’s far-right. The party’s youth movement, known as the Grey Wolves, was implicated in a series of assassinations during the mayhem of the 1970s and 80s, when the country was roiled by a previous military coup and widespread political violence. To this day, MHP members still flash the Grey Wolves’ salute, forming a wolf’s head with one hand, extending the index finger and pinky to form ears.
Aksener herself flashes the grey wolf signal at her rallies, and her politics reflects her long-held nationalism. In the past she has opposed peace talks with the militants of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), Turkey’s adversary in a long-running war. Asked to reassure ethnic minority voters about her vision for the country, she suggests that Turkey’s current legal framework is enough to address minorities’ needs. “Every minority living in Turkey is protected under the laws and agreements,” she says.
Aksener joined the MHP when chairman Devlet Bahceli rebranded the party in 2007, shunning the group’s violent past and presenting a more professional face. Elected again to parliament that year, she served two terms and became deputy speaker of the assembly, where colleagues remember her as someone who formed friendships across party lines and cracked jokes while chairing the parliament’s sessions.
No longer a member of parliament, she split with the MHP leadership in 2016 over Erdogan's bid to transform Turkey’s constitution. Instead of joining her party in backing the president, Aksener gave voice to a dissident faction. When she and other rebel nationalists called a party congress in an Ankara hotel in an attempt to oust the MHP’s leadership, police sealed off the building. Outside, a roiling crowd of men surged against the barricades. Aksener climbed on top of a bus and spoke through a bullhorn, urging the courts to take action. “You must immediately correct this mistake, [this] chaos and unlawfulness,” she said. In June an Ankara court once again ruled against the MHP dissidents, and Aksener ruled out another bid for the party leadership. "I closed that chapter," she told reporters on July 3.
"They've been trying to get me to back down and I haven't."
Now Aksener is considering a bid for her country's leadership under a new banner. But she is far from a perfect political candidate; she counts her deep experience in government as an advantage, at a time when outsiders seem to be sweeping elections across the planet. "Aksener is the Hillary Clinton of Turkey's presidential election," says Turkish political analyst Selim Sazak. "Everyone kinda sorta wants Aksener in power, but she's like a prune juice. It's good for your health, but it's not appetizing."
At the same time, there are precious few candidates in Turkey with a legitimate shot at challenging Erdogan. Dissident leaders within Erdogan's own party have failed to step forward and challenge the president. Others have paid bitterly for their defiance.
Selahattin Demirtas, for example, the popular leader of a pro-Kurdish party is now in prison on terrorism charges after he and at least 10 other lawmakers from his party who were arrested in November 2016. The crackdown decimated Demirtas’ Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the parliament’s third largest. In her interview with TIME, Aksener broke with her nationalist brethren and criticized the arrests of the pro-Kurdish lawmakers. "Erdogan is trying to threaten Kurdish society, that is why he put them in jail right before the referendum," she said.
Aksener herself has not escaped the government’s fury. Pro-government media have assailed her with salacious claims about her personal life. She has received death threats. She regards the smears and threats as an orchestrated campaign to scare her. “Since April 2016 they’ve been trying to get me to back down, and I haven’t.”
Chastened by the recent crackdown, other opposition figures believe the government will simply find a way to stop Aksener. Asked about her, a senior official in Demirtas’ Peoples’ Democratic Party said, “Anybody whose name is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, all of these goons and trolls and media people, they’ll do smear campaigns to disqualify them,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the party has not yet taken a stance on the presidential election.
Aksener has yet to decide whether she'll put her head above the parapet and take Erdogan on. Since the referendum campaign, she has bided her time, cooking and going for long walks with her husband outside her Istanbul home. The walks are a chance for her to reflect and make assessments, she says. “I concentrate better when I’m on the move.”
One thing she won't do, she says, is run. She has no passport, and if Erdogan's authorities show up to arrest her along with the many thousands of others perceived to have crossed him, she will once again do what she is supposed to do. “Be my guest,” she says, “I’m here.”
Vildan Ay contributed reporting.