Turkey’s upcoming elections suggest wounds of the 1990s are still fresh.
With the economy worsening, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has decided to hold elections a year earlier than planned. Since the 24 June date was announced, however, the lira has fallen five percent relative to the euro and twelve percent relative to the dollar. If the trend continues, the government could conceivably lose its absolute majority in parliament. The last time this occurred, in June 2015, President Erdoğan undermined his own prime minister’s attempts to form a coalition government and forced new elections. Amid the uncertainty in the run up to those elections, Kurdish activists declared autonomous zones in southern cities and the military responded by leveling entire neighborhoods; meanwhile, ISIS-linked attackers targeted left-wing and Kurdish protesters, killing over one hundred people in Ankara.
Should the AKP again be reduced to a plurality in parliament, the stakes have been reduced: after the 2015 elections, the government held a referendum to concentrate more power in the presidency—a referendum that passed by only 51.4 percent nation-wide and was rejected in the largest cities. Yet, this precaution has not solved matters for the government because it has decided to hold the presidential elections on 24 June as well.
An opposition victory depends on an alliance between deeply polarized political groups. The largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), hopes to secure the support of both the religious Felicity Party (SP) and the nationalist Good Party (İP). A conspicuous absence in this party coalition, however, is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which draws votes from Kurdish voters and other groups in Turkey that have historically been pushed to the margins of the political community. Only by excluding the HDP from their alliance have these parties been able to find common ground. In fact, among the most troubling aspects of the opposition coalition is the degree to which its constituent parties depend on exclusive rather than inclusive definitions of citizenship, be those defined by “secularism,” “religion,” or “ethnicity.” These different—and limited—conceptions of citizenship will likely come into conflict should the opposition win the presidency or a majority in the parliament.
The last time a clash of this degree manifested itself in government was during the late 1990s. It is fitting, therefore, that the factional leaders on whose support the opposition to Erdoğan depends were key figures in the 1990s—often connected with the worst aspects of those years. On the eve of the election, it is useful to consider the careers of those leaders—Good Party leader Meral Akşener and Felicity Party leader Temel Karamollaoğlu—in order to think through the problems in Turkey’s exclusionary political culture that predate the AKP and will not be solved simply by voting it out of power.
How Good A Party? Meral Akşener and the Far Right
The Good Party (İP) is little more than a vehicle for the personal ambitions of Meral Akşener, until late 2016 an important member of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The MHP champions a narrow conception of citizenship defined by Sunni Islam and Turkish ethnicity and is violently opposed to groups and individuals that it perceives to be challenging that understanding. In the 1960s and 1970s the group sought to impose and defend these ideas through its “Idealist” paramilitary organization; by the 1990s, its members had become deeply entwined with state security organizations, and it was under these conditions that Akşener made a name for herself.
Akşener came from a family with nationalist ties. Her older brother was involved in the Idealist movement and served as president of the Izmit MHP branch. During her college years, Akşener too became involved in right-wing student political organizations, but any advancement she might have hoped for was cut short by the 1980 military coup, which banned political parties and arrested activists on both the left and the right. The military officers who led the coup sought to re-unify a fractured nation by suppressing broader religious, ethnic, and class identities. In place of such identities, the military leaders spoke of a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.” Such talk led MHP leaders to joke, “Our ideas are in power, but we are in prison.” Even after banned parties and their leaders were allowed to return to politics in the late 1980s, it took time for the MHP to reconstitute itself; many of its one-time supporters had found homes in other parties.
Akşener spent the 1980s earning a doctorate in history and teaching at Kocaeli University in her hometown. In 1994, she was recruited by the center-right True Path Party (DYP) to run as its candidate for mayor of Kocaeli province. Though she lost, she quickly came to the attention of Turkey’s first female prime minister, Tansu Çiller (like Akşener, an academic-turned-politician). Çiller had risen quickly, starting as an economic advisor to Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel in 1990, entering parliament the next year, and then advancing to the premiership in 1993 when the president died of a heart attack and Demirel took his place.
To distinguish herself, Çiller adopted more right-wing, pro-military rhetoric than Demirel. Meanwhile, lacking a political network of her own, Çiller was working fast to create one. Akşener, with her ties to the right wing, was helpful in this regard. Akşener was put in charge of Çiller’s personal foundation for military widows, then made president of the DYP Women’s Arm; finally, in 1995, she entered parliament as a representative for Istanbul. The election, however, had been a defeat for Çiller: under her leadership the DYP had lost more than forty seats and gone from being the largest to the third-largest party in parliament. The largest party was the Welfare Party (RP), a conservative religious party that had been winning mayoral races in cities like Istanbul and Ankara in recent years.
Akşener advocated for the DYP to form a coalition with the second largest party, the economically liberal Motherland Party. Though Çiller initially attempted to ally with Motherland, the coalition lacked enough votes in parliament and soon the DYP was in a new coalition with the RP. The RP leader, Necmettin Erbakan, became prime minister, making him Turkey’s most vocally pious premier up to that date. Despite Akşener’s opposition to the coalition, Çiller kept her close; Akşener joined the DYP General Governing Council; she became one of the party’s general vice-presidents and was responsible for women’s and youth issues. Within less than three months of gaining these responsibilities, she was threatening journalists for investigating Çiller’s various corrupt undertakings. “Until now,” she explained, “we have succeeded in preventing any unwanted event to occur. Still we will try. But after today, we know we will have difficulty holding back our Tansu-Çiller-fanatic youths. We are warning you for the last time.”
In a country where journalists are frequently killed, such words cannot be treated as mere rhetoric.
The RP-DYP coalition, meanwhile, was off to a rocky start—and largely for reasons Akşener could have predicted. Erbakan and his ministers had spent their first two months visiting various Muslim countries like Libya and Pakistan, alienating long-time allies like Israel, and breaking with American talking-points by denying that the Iranian and Syrian governments engaged in terrorist acts. Domestically, RP ministers had held conspicuous meetings with religious leaders and suspects in high-profile religiously-motivated crimes. The greatest challenge for the government, however, was not of the RP’s making, but rather of Çiller’s—or, really, of the state-security apparatus with which she had cultivated ties.
On 3 November 1996, a car crash in the town of Susurluk killed three of four passengers: Istanbul’s former assistant chief of police, a young woman, and the woman’s lover, Abdullah Çatlı, a wanted hitman with ties to right-wing militant organizations. The fourth passenger, injured but alive, was a DYP member of parliament. The accident (and the ensuing investigation) illuminated what many had long suspected to be a dense network of relations between the government, the security services, right-wing organizations, and organized crime. Many of these associations had formed with the pretext of fighting the separatist paramilitary Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) in the southeast. Yet fighting the PKK and upholding an exploitative rural economic order often went hand-in-hand. The injured parliamentarian, Sedat Bucak, was a powerful southeastern landlord whom the government was paying eleven thousand dollars a month to fund his local anti-PKK militia.
An immediate outcome of the evolving “Susurluk Scandal” was that the minister of the interior, Mehmet Ağar, was forced to resign. In addition to being the top civilian security official, his signature had been on the dead hitman’s fake identification card. Further accusation surfaced that Ağar had stayed in the same hotel as the car’s passengers during the previous week. Ağar was a recent addition to the DYP, one of many governors and police officials whom Çiller had added to her electoral list in 1995 in the hope of presenting the party as the defender of the state against security threats. By retaining control of the Interior Ministry via an ally like Ağar, Çiller had been able to ensure that any investigations into her personal finances were quashed. To ensure that Susurluk and other investigations did not implicate her, Çiller replaced Ağar on 8 November with another close ally: Meral Akşener.
In the coming weeks, Akşener oversaw a purge of security officials with ties to gangs. Hundreds were fired in her first week. In December, she removed the Istanbul chief of police and several officers in connection with the murder of a casino magnate in July 1996. Abdullah Çatlı and the casino owner had had business dealings and, after the suspect police had been questioned, they had been made personal bodyguards to Sedat Bucak. The web of connections seemed to be spreading and Akşener was not left untouched: it soon emerged that Akşener, like Ağar, had attended a wedding where Çatlı was present. There was a kind of logic to this: all three had ties to right-wing politics. Akşener also maintained her ties to Ağar, referring to him as a “big brother” when she took office and often appearing with him in public. (On one occasion, they were seen attending the Keanu Reeves-Charlize Theron romance film Sweet November.)
While Akşener made no moves to antagonize Çiller or her allies, she did take steps against the DYP’s coalition partners. In late November, she suggested placing religious schools under closer supervision and, in January, backed a law to replace governors in key RP provinces. This latter move met with pushback from local religious leaders, and therefore, the RP leadership. The bill was shelved, but it was a pyrrhic victory as it convinced secularists in the armed forces that civilian leaders like Akşener could not take the steps necessary to halt the Islamicization of the state. These suspicions were accentuated in early February, when the RP mayor Sincan held a “Jerusalem Night” rally where the Iranian ambassador spoke and crowds called for shari‘a law. The following day, the secular CHP held a counter-protest and scuffles broke out. In response, the army sent tanks through the streets and the mayor was removed.
In the lead up to the monthly National Security Council meeting on 28 February, military leaders talked of the need to halt the spread of Islam. As one put it, “Today, religious extremist currents are more dangerous than the PKK.” At the actual meeting, the military demanded that the RP-DYP government implement a series of measures to check the spread of Islam; these included closing unlicensed religious schools and stepping up the prosecution of activities deemed contrary to Turkey’s secular nature. Many of these measures were carried out by Akşener’s Interior Ministry, which issued instructions to provincial governors to investigate RP mayors and to ensure they were not using their municipalities as “bases” for Islamic militant cadres.
Separate from the military’s priorities, Akşener and Çiller worked to strengthen their hold on the state security apparatus. In April, they removed the chief of the national police; his replacement, in turn, oversaw a wiretapping of high-ranking military officers. These maneuvers came to light in July when the DYP (under pressure from the military) pulled out of the governing coalition and lost control of the Interior Ministry. Both Çiller and Akşener now found themselves facing a slew of potential charges, which might lead to the removal of their parliamentary immunity.
Akşener faced old charges related to threatening reporters and new ones relating to her spying on the military. In the latter case, she pushed back, saying that she had acted to forestall a military and coup, defiantly arguing that “[t]he military command has established a spy bureau contrary to the law. It has opened files on sixty-five million people; on governors, local officials, teachers, and doctors. You cannot divide people up as believers and unbelievers. We will hold these activities to account.” The hostility between her and the military led one general to allegedly threaten he would “impale her like a goose.”
Brave stances like this are central to Akşener’s appeal. Yet, clearly, there was more at work here than political bravery. More generally, the courageousness of speaking one’s mind depends on what is being said: Akşener once famously declared that the PKK leader was “Armenian spawn.”Given that the Ottoman Empire uprooted nearly all of its Armenian population and sent hundreds of thousands marching off to their deaths on the pretext they were potential separatists, such words were understandably chilling to Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Akşener’s subsequent apology—“I was not speaking about Armenians living in Turkey, but rather the Armenian race generally”—did little to address concerns. Moreover, since the concern is less the words than the policies that they signal, her other statements regarding military operations in the southeast during the 1990s have also been worrisome. At a rally in 2016, for example, she declared:
During my time as Interior Minister, I was the minister who signed off on the longest, broadest, and most comprehensive cross-border actions in history. I’m sorry to say there are some on social media who say ‘Meral Akşener can’t be MHP leader, she’s responsible for unsolved murders. Let them say what they will; I’m fine with all of it. If something is necessary for this country, for this nation’s unity and togetherness, I will take responsibility for it right to the end.
Though Akşener had clashed with the military, it was not over the actions of the military but rather over who had authority over those actions: the high command or the civilian politicians.
Akşener had found herself facing off against the military leadership on account of Ciller, but she would soon part ways with her political patron. In the 1999 election, Çiller tried to position her party as the champion of women and the downtrodden—as Akşener put, “Against oligarchy, only we, the DYP, can be successful.” Voters were unconvinced and the party lost thirty-seven percent of its seats. In the aftermath, Akşener called for more “internal party democracy” and derided Çiller’s “crony democracy.” In the following two years, she and a handful of other DYP members with ties to the ultra-nationalist movement formed an internal party opposition. Akşener met with and fielded offers from all major right-wing parties. Her overtures to these parties led DYP Istanbul Provincial President Süleyman Soylu to declare the party “tired of treachery” and call for her expulsion. (He currently serves as the AKP’s minister of the interior.)
When Akşener did finally leave the DYP, it was to the join the “reformist” movement led by former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In July 2001, Akşener voiced her support for his efforts to challenge the old guard of conservative religious politicians and create a new party of the center-right. In public appearances she declared, “In the past I was an ‘Idealist’ [nationalist], but now I am a democrat.” Within a month, she broke with Erdoğan, arguing that she had discovered his organization to be narrow and cliquish—no better than the movement he claimed to be separating from. Reports, however, suggest that the more immediate cause was Erdoğan’s refusal to include allies of hers like Mehmet Ağar in the movement’s leadership. Instead, she took up the MHP’s invitation.
In the short term, joining the MHP was a bad decision. The party was routed in the 2002 elections and Akşener was denied a seat in parliament for the next five years. Returning after 2007, she was given prominent positions such as deputy speaker of the parliament. She was not, however, part of the central leadership cadre around leader Devlet Bahçeli. Following MHP losses in the 2015 election, she moved to challenge him. While Bahçeli did his best to hold her off by refusing to call a party congress, the failed coup of 15 July 2016 served as something of a deus ex machina, freezing politics and giving him an opportunity to move closer to Erdoğan. Akşener was accused of links to the coup-plotters and expelled from the party.
During her challenge to Bahçeli and since, Akşener has been extremely skillful at drawing attention from foreign media outlets. Reports seldom fail to mention that her supporters call her by the nickname “Asena” (she-wolf) or speak of her “meteoric rise.” She is described as Erdoğan’s “most fearless challenger” and compared to Margaret Thatcher but the comparison journalist Zia Weise makes to Marine Le Pen is more accurate.
As with Le Pen, profiles often emphasize Akşener’s calls for women’s rights. More than most politicians in Turkey, Akşener has tried to balance calls for the state to respect women’s individual religious freedom with demands that the state take an active role in protecting them from domestic abuse. As a member of parliament, she supported the right of women to wear headscarves in school, and as interior minister, she directed police to stop attempting to immediately reconcile victims of domestic abuse with their abusers. Like Le Pen, though, Akşener defends a model of state-citizen relations in which women’s access to state protection is bound up in their conforming to a particularly racialized notion of citizenship—one that the state should support.
All newspaper and magazine sources were accessed online prior to June 3, 2018.
Tanıl Bora and Kemal Can, Devlet-Ocak-Dergah: 12 Eylül’den 1990’lara Ülkücü Hareket (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1991), 120.
 Ümit Cizre, “Liberalism, Democracy and the Turkish Center-Right: The Identity Crisis of the True Path Party,” Middle Eastern Studies 32, no. 2 (1996): 153.
 “DYP'den basına tehdit,” Milliyet, 10/9/96.
 Sema Ecer, “Bucak'in 89 korucusuna 1.2 milyar işleri,” Milliyet, 1/14/97. Calculation is based on exchange rates quoted for 1/14/97.
 “Akşener ve Ağar,aşk filminde!” Milliyet, 5/28/01.
 “İrtica PKK’dan daha tehlikeli,” Milliyet, 2/25/97.
 “Akşener'den Refah genelgesi,” Milliyet, 3/26/97.
 “Akşener: Genelkurmay bölücü,” Milliyet, 10/10/97; “Bir: Akşener çok mert hanımefendi,” Milliyet, 9/17/03.
 “Akşener, Apo için 'Ermeni' dedi,” Milliyet, 3/28/97.
 Akşener may be more explicit in treating Armenian ethnicity as a negative and using it as a slur, but other political leaders clearly share her views. Both former president Abdullah Gül and CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have sued people for writing that they have Armenian ancestry. President Erdoğan in discussing similar accusations has explained, “They’ve said I’m Georgian. Sorry, but they’ve said even worse things: they’ve said I’m Armenian. But I am a Turk” (Ali Aslangül “Siyasetten sanata uzanan fobi: Ne mutlu 'Ermeni değilim' diyene!” T24, 8/7/14)
 Yıldırım Türker, “Karşılama ekibi,” Radikal, 4/12/04. An interesting defense of Akşener’s words came from an MHP member with Armenian heritage who argued that Akşener had always been nice to her personally and attributed Akşener’s statements to the conditions of terror that Turkey was facing in the 1990s, observing that “women can be more sensitive” (Emre Ertani, “‘Kiliseye giderim, Allah’ımı bilirim, MHP’liyim,’” Agos, 2/27/14).
 Ruşen Çakır, “Doğru Yolun solu,” Milliyet, 1/7/99.
 Pınar Aktaş, “Çiller, çapraz ateşte,” Milliyet, 6/12/99; Ercüment İşleyen, “Akşener: Çiller yalancı,” Milliyet, 7/28/99.
 “Ülkücüydü demokrat oldu!” Milliyet, 7/24/01.
 Abdullah Karakuş and Aydın Hasan, “‘Sanki transfer olduk,’” Milliyet, 8/4/01.
 In an October 2017 speech to neighborhood headmen, President Erdoğan criticized Kurdish paramilitary organizations, saying they were manipulating the well-meaning Kurdish citizens of Turkey through racial appeals. “Saying ‘I’m a Kurd,’’ he argued, “is your most natural right, but doing Kurdism [Kürtçülük] is not a right. Saying ‘I’m a Turk” is your most natural right, but doing Turkism [Türkçülük] is not a right. These are separatism. And what did our Lord say: ‘I divided you into tribes that you might better know each other’ [Surah 49:13]. Our hearts and arms are open to our brothers.” The quote perfectly encapsulates the way in which Erdoğan has always sought to reach out to Kurdish citizens, albeit in a context defined ultimately by a sense of religious commonality rather than a civic one. Even this framing was too much for Akşener who responded Trumpishly via tweet, “If only the honorable president had understood a hundred pages of Turkish history and world history and understood [famous Turkist] Gaspıralı and Atatürk, then he would have comprehended the meaning of Turkism. Sad.”