ANKARA, Turkey — Out of the repressive climate of the last 18 months since a bloody coup attempt in Turkey, the most fearless challenger to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and potentially his most serious rival in future elections — has been Meral Aksener.
A former interior minister and seasoned right-wing politician, Ms. Aksener, 61, is credited with gathering much of the national support for the “No” campaign in an April referendum that nearly defeated Mr. Erdogan’s attempt to vastly expand his powers.
Now she plans to build on that support to challenge him for the presidency. She predicts that Mr. Erdogan will call early presidential elections for July 15.
Expelled from the Nationalist Movement Party in September 2016 after challenging its leader over a growing alliance with Mr. Erdogan, she founded the Iyi Party, or Good Party, a year later in October. She is already campaigning around the country.
“I call it the movement of the brave,” she said in an interview in November in new party offices in Ankara, the capital.
Under the state of emergency imposed by Mr. Erdogan since the attempted coup, public gatherings are prohibited and freedom of expression and the media are tightly constrained. Most of those joining Ms. Aksener’s movement are young people chafing under the restrictions, she said.
Ms. Aksener and Mr. Erdogan both represent the center right of the political spectrum, but she opposes him on almost every aspect of his politics, from his increasingly autocratic form of government to his anti-Western diatribes that have damaged relations and scared off foreign investment.
Mr. Erdogan remains Turkey’s most popular politician by far, but last year’s referendum showed that the country is deeply divided. Ms. Aksener says she is uniquely placed to draw support from right-wing nationalists and more liberal centrists who are disenchanted with Mr. Erdogan.
“We saw in the referendum the country is split in half,” she said. “The Good Party is the only party that can get votes from both camps.”
Still, her path ahead will be anything but easy. Although Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has slipped slightly in the polls, there is little sign that Ms. Aksener is the cause, said Kemal Can, a prominent political writer.
“Most of the polls show that she cannot draw the vote away from A.K.P.,” he said, using the party’s Turkish initials. “She may sway 1 or 2 percent from A.K.P., but these are already estranged voters who most probably already voted No in the referendum.”
Since she occupies some of the same political space as the president, Ms. Aksener is in many ways campaigning as the anti-Erdogan.
She says she wants to re-establish freedom of expression, reverse draconian measures that have imprisoned journalists and closed down newspapers and media outlets, and restore a nonpartisan justice system and constitutional court.
She also says she wants to reverse Mr. Erdogan’s April referendum, which will introduce an executive-style presidency after the next elections, regardless of who wins.
“We are going to return to a parliamentary system,” she said. “The second thing is to restore trust in the economy.”
The daughter of a civil servant, Ms. Aksener grew up in a small rural village in western Turkey. Her family was among the hundreds of thousands resettled from Greece in the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
“Despite limited education, I managed to go to university and became a lecturer,” she said. She gained her doctorate in history in Istanbul and taught at several universities.
Yet Ms. Aksener said the possibility of moving up a class through education had become elusive in Turkey, where employment has become partisan, depending on whether a person is connected to the governing party. “The opportunity I got 45 years ago, you cannot receive today,” she said.
Education and the economy are the two things people are most concerned about on the campaign trail, she said.
Thousands of families were affected when Mr. Erdogan scrapped the national high-school entrance exam in September, ordering students instead to attend their closest neighborhood school, many of which have been transformed into religious academies.
“Pupils were preparing for the exam for four years,” Ms. Aksener said, “and you change it overnight?”
“Mobility between the social classes will be diminished,” she added. “Children will not be able to dream about their future, and this is the saddest thing.”
Although Mr. Erdogan has overseen a period of impressive economic growth, allowing many in Turkey to climb out of poverty and join the middle classes, Ms. Aksener noted that the growth has been built on a construction boom rather than industrialization.
Pointing to high youth unemployment, she said research conducted by her party had found that 18- to 25-year-olds from middle-income families felt trapped in a triangle of unhappiness, despair and fatalism. “The Good Party will give hope to these people,” she said.
She entered politics in 1994, joining the True Path Party of Suleyman Demirel and serving as interior minister for nine months until a military coup replaced the government in 1997. She joined the Nationalist Movement Party in 2007 and became deputy speaker of Parliament for eight years.
Although the Nationalist Movement Party has a history of extreme right-wing elements, Ms. Aksener has avoided nationalist rhetoric and describes herself as center-right. Her party manifesto is carefully worded, supporting a strong defense against terrorism, immigration and outside cultural influences.
Senior members of her new party have been more outspoken, though. Umit Ozdag, the vice chairman of the Good Party, caused an outcry in November with derogatory comments about Syrian refugees.
Ms. Aksener remains focused on attacking Mr. Erdogan’s policies.
She broke with the Nationalist Movement Party leader, Devlet Bahceli, over his support for Mr. Erdogan’s new presidential system, which she criticizes for lacking checks and balances.
She is also campaigning for women’s rights, hoping to win over female voters. “In the cities, women are harassed based on their gender,” she said. “In the villages they are beaten up or even killed.”
She describes her 24 years in politics as a “very rough political life.” During the 2015 parliamentary election campaign, supporters of Mr. Erdogan alleged on television that a video showed her cheating on her husband, a mechanical engineer.
In the furor that followed, both Mr. Erdogan and his wife called her in sympathy, as did Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his wife — although Ms. Aksener said that amid that sympathy they also encouraged her to drop out.
“I noticed there was an expectation that I should end this fight,” she said. “I went in the opposite direction. I continued the fight and I sued those people.”
Her accusers backed off somewhat, but were later acquitted.
The battle taught her a lesson, she says. “I saw them up close,” she said. “I am not afraid of Erdogan, not as much as a grain of dust.”
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