Who is Turkey's 'Iron Lady' Meral Aksener Who Is Rising to Challenge President Erdogan?

Turkey's right-wing politician Meral Aksener is seen by some as the main challenger of President Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power since 2014.

Dubbed as "Turkey's iron lady" and "Asena", after a mythical she-wolf, Aksener has increasingly voiced her dissent against most of Erdgan's policies in a country where rights groups claim the government is cracking down on freedom of speech and political opponents.

Who is Meral Aksener?

Born in Izmit in 1956, Aksener obtained a P.h.D. in history and worked as a lecturer until 1995, when she won a seat in parliament as a member of the secular conservative True Path Party.

She served as Minister of the Interior between 1996 and 1997, when she was forced to resign following a military memorandum that resulted in the dissolution of the then Necmettin Erbakan government.

Aksener refused to leave office quietly, accusing generals of staging a coup. One of them threatened to impale her "on an oily stake", according to the Economist.

The 61-year-old woman, described as a devout Muslim, was at the forefront of the "No" campaign in an April 2017 referendum that amended the constitution to grant Erdogan sweeping new powers.

Last year, she was expelled by the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) after she tried to unseat its leader Devlet Bahceli, whom she accused of having helped Erdogan in winning the referendum.

Soon after, she announced the creation of her Iyi Party, or Good Party, to challenge Erdogan in presidential elections, scheduled to take place in November 2019.

Meral Aksener
Turkey's Iyi ('Good') Party chairman Meral Aksener answers questions during an interview with AFP in Ankara on December 15, 2017. Some see her as the main challenger of President Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power since 2014. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

During a ceremony to mark the launch of the party, Aksener said: "Turkey and its people are tired, the state is worn down, and public order is unraveling. There is no way other than the changing of the political atmosphere. Our people are clearly saying they want ... a new government."

Members of the MHP and the secular main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have since quit left their parties to join Aksener's, Reuters said.

As many Turkish people have become increasingly dissatisfied with Erdogan's domestic and foreign policies, Aksener is gaining popularity, with analysts claiming she could gain votes from angry citizens.

"Half of the country is alienated, including minorities, liberals, seculars, Alevis, Kurds and many others. For all these disenchanted segments, Aksener would offer a new beginning," Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based analyst on Turkey, told Newsweek.

"As Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) became a party-state, it became very difficult for people to live by without bowing to the party. Nepotism and corruption are everywhere, everyday. She stands a chance. She offers [a] non-corrupt Turkey.

"She [has] never [been] accused of corruption and her language is not that nationalist, though her platform is based on center-right and nationalism."

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference with Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi (not pictured) at Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Human rights

At least 265 people died in a failed attempt to overthrow the Turkish regime in July 2016. Ankara accused US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers of having orchestrated the failed coup, something that Gulen has denied.

Turkey has since cracked down on civil servants and people suspected of having links with Gulen. At least 150,000 people have been fired, and more than 50,000 jailed following the failed coup, Reuters estimated.

The government's response has prompted condemnation by human rights groups and stirred fears democracy is deteriorating in the nation.

"Tainted as 'terrorists' and stripped of their livelihoods, a large swathe of people in Turkey are no longer able to continue in their careers and have had alternative employment opportunities blocked," Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's researcher on Turkey, said earlier this year.

Turkey has been under a state of emergency since the attempted coup. The purge, which Ankara said was necessary to root out threats to the government, has prompted the international community to isolate Turkey.

"EU membership talks were the biggest economic hope and reason for Turkey's stability for years," Tanir said.

Aksener, who said she wants to reverse the April referendum and return to a parliamentary system, believes her party is the only one that can draw votes from both sides of the population. The politician also said she wants to repeal laws that have reduced freedoms in the country.

In next presidential elections, candidates need to get more than 50 percent of the votes in the final wound to win.

"Since roughly half of Turkey's population is opposing Erdogan and his ideas, Aksener or another candidates who will be the challenger in the final round indeed have a chance," Tanir said.

"[However] this is not easy at all, and we do not even know if Erdogan would allow such results to come from ballot boxes as he is in control of all bodies of the Turkish state under the state of emergency," he concluded.