ISTANBUL - On her tour of Turkey's Black Sea region, Meral Aksener is drawing large crowds eager to hear her message of revitalizing her Nationalist Action Party, or MHP. The region is a bastion of Turkish nationalism and was once an MHP stronghold; however, in recent elections, the nationalist party has seen its vote cannibalized by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP.
Kadri Gursel, a columnist for Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper and Al-Monitor website, says if Aksener is successful in her bid to oust current MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, she could revolutionize the party's fortunes.
"MHP is a political party doomed to bitterly fail as long as Bahceli will stay head of it,” Gursel said. “So Meral Aksener rises as an alternative, as a hope for democratic change in the party."
The MHP's vote collapsed in the November general election, in which the party lost half its seats and barely passed the vote threshold to enter parliament. Many of its supporters defected to the AKP, helping the ruling party secure a large majority.
Aksener served in a center-right government in the 1990s, which makes her a potential threat to Erdogan and the AKP, says Atilla Yesilada, an analyst at Global Source Partners.
"The real threat to Erdogan is going to come from the center-right,” Yesilada said. “And Meral Aksener has very strong center-right credentials: She was interior minister; she was there when the army and security forces purged the PKK from Turkey, so she is a very tough woman. And journalists who follow her trail in Anatolia report huge interest. Huge convoys are greeting her wherever she goes — we are talking 400, 450 vehicles."
Aksener's leadership challenge has been mired in controversy, however, with the current MHP leadership going to court to block her from calling an emergency party conference. Observers say there are suspicions that Erdogan was behind a series of legal delays, until the country's highest administrative court finally ruled the conference must be held.
Erdogan is seeking to extend his presidential powers either through a referendum, or securing a two-thirds parliamentary majority in a snap election. Observers say either scenario is dependent on a weak and compliant MHP.
Thus, the outcome of the MHP's emergency party conference, scheduled for later this month, could have far-reaching consequences, Gursel says.
"According to surveys, if Aksener replaces Devlet Bahceli in MHP, she will push MHP public support to unprecedented levels, [and] also make it impossible [for] Erdogan to realize his dreams of becoming [a] constitutional dictator or to have his [two-thirds] parliamentary majority in a snap election anytime soon,” Gursel said. “That is why Erdogan will prevent Aksener becoming MHP leader."
Observers say an Aksener-led MHP could, for the first time, offer voters a viable right-wing alternative to the AKP.