You have to give to her: Meral Akşener’s got some pretty good Twitter game.
Members of her İyi Party could plausibly have been thrown into disarray by the eleventh-hour unity call from Devlet Bahçeli, her ideological rival for Turkey’s nationalist-minded voters.
“The time has come to embrace,” the MHP leader tweeted on Thursday evening, two days before İyi members gathered for a meeting of party delegates. “An İyi Party move to consolidate and unite with the MHP will add strength to Turkey’s strength and carry our half-century cause forward into the future.”
Buluşma yerimiz zillet değil millettir. Kucaklaşma zamanı gelmiştir. İYİ Parti’nin Olağanüstü Kurultay’ında MHP’yle bütünleşme ve birleşme hamlesi Türkiye’nin gücüne güç katacak, yarım asırlık davamızı birlik ve dirlik içinde geleceğe taşıyacaktır.
— Devlet Bahçeli (@dbdevletbahceli) August 1, 2019
In isolation, it is a remarkable olive branch to a faction that acrimoniously broke away from the MHP three years ago. Mr Bahçeli wouldn’t even refer to the İyi Party by name until after this year’s local election.
In actuality, it’s a sign of how few options the MHP has left to enlarge its diminished voter base – a consequence of an extensive but bitter alliance with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party that turned it into little more than a restive junior coalition partner.
That is why a buoyant Ms Akşener could have a little fun.
“Mr Erdoğan, what have you told our friend now?” she asked the Turkish president on Twitter, referring to his closed-doors meeting at Mr Bahçeli’s house earlier this week.
— Meral Akşener (@meral_aksener) August 1, 2019
Another missive from the İyi Party account contained a short video of Ms Akşener applauding in delight, apparently in response to the merger offer.
The İyi Party leader has good reason to feel optimistic after the Turkish local elections. Although it is difficult to draw simplistic conclusions from hundreds of different contests around the country, many of which did not focus on national issues, İyi did generate some impressive results.
It did not win a büyükşehir mayoralty – those in Turkey’s biggest cities – but had a good stab at it in Balıkesir, where it lost to the AK Party candidate by a mere percentage point. It won only a handful of smaller district councils, but those it did take were in places where it hopes to be competitive in the future – like Aydın on the western coast and Samsun by the Black Sea.
In many areas its share of the vote matched or doubled the MHP tally; in others, like Ankara and Antalya, it made its mark by not fielding candidates at all, and İyi support was crucial to CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu’s twin victories in Istanbul.
That’s pretty good going for an outfit that was founded less than two years ago, party leaders say.
Ms Akşener herself is, as this website wrote when İyi was formally established in October 2017, a rarity in Turkish politics these days: an active, outspoken, conservative politician with experience in government, but not as an AK Party member.
Her potential to lead a inclusive, centre-right movement that could replace AK was clear, but so far she has failed – for two reasons.
The first is that she leads a movement that is essentially a social media-savvy version of Mr Bahçeli’s MHP in its pre-2015 form : anti-Erdoğan, anti-corruption and, it must be said, anti-Kurd.
The İyi Party is deeply conflicted on issues of ethnicity because it is largely made up of former MHP folk, many of whom ardently believe Turkey is a nation of a single ethnic identity with some small, regional variations.
Words like “Kurd” or “Alevi” did not appear once in the party general election manifesto last year; finding itself on the same side as the pro-Kurdish HDP in this year’s local elections was another source of discomfort. Ms Akşener insists her movement is not anti-Kurdish, but the ethnic composition of her leadership team suggests otherwise.
The second reason why İyi has yet to become an AK replacement is not within Ms Akşener’s control, but nonetheless affects her ability to broaden her movement.
It has been many years since the AK Party could claim to be anything other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal fiefdom, but it is only now that it is beginning to seriously unravel. It is far likelier now than it was in 2017 that the movement to follow the AK Party era will be formed by an estranged Erdoğan ally – and not Ms Akşener.
Of the “big three” politicians who helped him establish AK, Abdüllatif Şener is now a member of the opposition CHP, the outspoken Bulent Arınç has been temporarily placated with a senior advisor’s job, while former president Abdullah Gül is overseeing a protégé – Ali Babacan – in his efforts to start a new party. Separately, another prominent AK figure, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, is in open revolt.
None of this is to suggest the İyi Party is pointless – far from it. Estimates suggest Turkish nationalists make up to around a quarter of the electorate and they are poorly served by the ageing Mr Bahçeli, who is completely out of touch with reality (a recent speech he delivered suggested British foreign policy was channeling Lawrence of Arabia).
On Saturday, Ms Akşener attacked Mr Bahçeli with the words “nationalism belongs not to one person but to all of Turkey”. The İyi Party today resembles the movement she would have created had she succeeded in toppling him as MHP leader four years ago.
It is far from Turkey’s next government-in-waiting.