ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused by critics of amassing power and creating the latest in a series of autocratic governments in the country, faces a new political threat after the launch Wednesday of the Iyi Party by Meral Aksener.
The former interior minister boosted her profile by campaigning against a referendum on extending the Turkish president's powers, and now observers see her as potentially posing the biggest challenge to Erdogan's re-election bid. Some polls show she could secure more than 20 percent of the vote and threaten the majority that Erdogan's party now holds in parliament.
Aksener, a right-wing nationalist, is promising to shake up Turkish politics with the launch of her Iyi, or "Good," Party.
"It is time to say new things," she said Wednesday in a speech at the kickoff of her party, where she promised to take things in a new direction. "Yes, we have major problems. But Turkey has enough powers to resolve them. We have hopes and dreams. We want a prosperous and just Turkey. We want a free society. We want a happy Turkey."
Criticism on human rights
The Good Party seeks to place itself in the center-right of Turkey's political spectrum. In what appeared to be a jab at the Erdogan government and its post-coup-attempt crackdown on journalists, Aksener took aim at the country's recent human rights record.
"Media should not be under pressure. Democratic participation, a strong parliament and the national will are irreplaceable," she said.
Turkey has been under emergency rule since last year's failed coup, with tens of thousands arrested or dismissed from their jobs.
Aksener, interior minister during the 1990s, gained prominence this year in a formidable campaign against a referendum to extend Erdogan's powers. The ballot measure was approved, but by the narrowest of margins — something analysts attributed to the success of Aksener's campaign.
Several recent opinion polls have suggested she enjoys strong support, with one poll giving any party she leads more than 20 percent in what political analysts say could be a rising tide of discontent about the crackdown.
"She clearly rides the wave of current political anxiety and dissatisfaction of voters with existing political parties," said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners, a political and economic analysis service. "The economy is slowing down and the currency is going down. People are accumulating foreign currency. There is anxiety about what the future will bring."
Turkey is suffering both double-digit inflation and unemployment, while the currency is approaching record lows fueled by diplomatic tensions with many allies and concerns about the country's large foreign debt. A driver of Erdogan's success at the polls was a booming economy, characterized by massive infrastructure projects.
Appeal to AKP constituency
If Erdogan's fortunes are in fact changing, and supporters insist they are not, Aksener could benefit.
"She is getting cross-party support," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar, highlighting that a parliamentary deputy of the center-left CHP Party had joined her ranks. "But the natural terrain of her party where she can really grow is the constituency of the [ruling] AKP Party."
The timing of the founding of the Good Party is opportune for Erdogan opponents, coinciding with what observers say are signs that Erdogan's AKP is in disarray. Erdogan is in the midst of purging dozens of the country's mayors — including those of the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul — in an effort to revitalize his party ahead of general and presidential elections in 2019.
"This whole process is demoralizing the [AKP] party. Their willingness and desire to fight the next election is diminishing as we speak," said political consultant Yesilada. "It's like the old joke in the office: 'Whippings will continue until morale improves.' It does not work that way," the analyst said.
While opinion polls give AKP a commanding lead over its rivals, some polls record a softening in AKP support, with as much as 20 percent of its voters considering not supporting the party. But Aksener's political past is seen as a potential handicap.
"Her party of origin is the extreme right MHP Party, which is far from being a center-right party," said Aktar. "Her brain team [advisers], her very close team, are almost all [of] MHP origin. Among them are some very radical figures. She needs to broaden her political staff if she is to broaden her constituency. For the time being, in Turkish public opinion, she is considered an offspring [of] the MHP."
Winning over Kurdish voters
In the eyes of skeptics, Aksener's political baggage will be her biggest hurdle in seeking to win over AKP Kurdish voters, who account for about a fifth of its support. The MHP, her old party, is deeply hostile to the granting of greater rights to Turkey's large Kurdish minority. But with Erdogan increasingly courting nationalist voters, he has enforced a major military crackdown in Kurdish regions. Ankara's tough stance against the recent Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, some analysts say, has further alienated traditional AKP Kurdish voters.
"The AKP Kurds have no alternative, even though Erdogan has been quite tough on the Kurds. The traditionalist Kurds know CHP or MHP is no alternative. They will evaluate now whether the Iyi Party is serious," said Aktar.
Aksener reportedly is planning to spend time in the Kurdish region. Critics charge that the logo of her party, perhaps by coincidence, is an image of the sun, a traditional symbol of Kurdish nationalists.
"Aksener, during her time as interior minister, was considered a heavily anti-Kurdish politician, so she needs to change this image and it won't be easy. There are no good memories about her among the Kurdish population," said Aktar.
Aksener's tenure as interior minister was at the height of fighting against the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. She was then a member of the center-right DYP Party, which traditionally secured significant Kurdish votes despite the conflict, a legacy observers say she will seek to resurrect.
On Kurdish rights, as on most key policy issues, Aksener has not yet revealed her hand.
"She is going to get reaction votes, but whether she really can put together an agenda that will appeal to all those unsatisfied voters is an unanswered question," said Yesilada.