Meral Aksener doesn’t run from fights. Turkey’s former interior minister is known informally as asena, or she-wolf. When the country’s military took steps in 1997 to remove the government from power, she took a stand against its leaders. A general threatened to have the young lawmaker impaled “on an oily spike that we’ll put in front of the ministry.” Testifying about the conversation in court in 2013, she brushed the comment off. “I did what I was supposed to do,” she said.
As she once defied the military, her supporters hope she can stand in the way of the collapse of Turkey’s democracy, one year after another attempted coup. A veteran nationalist, Aksener campaigned vigorously against a constitutional overhaul proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that is set to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with one dominated by his own powerful presidency. Erdogan won a narrow, disputed victory in the referendum on April 16, but Aksener won herself a far higher profile. She drew throngs to raucous campaign rallies around the country where she urged the public to vote ‘no.’ Huge crowds chanted, “Prime Minister Meral!”
Now, Aksener’s name (pronounced “Ak-she-ner”) has been whispered as a possible challenger to Erdogan in the presidential election expected in 2019. Aides reveal to TIME she is planning to announce a new political party. Speaking to TIME at her Istanbul home in May, her face lit up when she spoke about how she rattles Erdogan. “I ruin his comfort zone,” she says, “because he knows I am a real competitor.”
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