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Turkey: New Government Gets Down To Work Amid Signals To The West

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's new prime minister, Abdullah Gul, officially took over yesterday from outgoing Premier Bulent Ecevit and immediately set to work. With the European Union maintaining pressure over political and social reforms needed to qualify for membership, and with the prospect of U.S. military action against Iraq still looming, Turkey's 58th government faces a demanding foreign-policy agenda. But Gul, whose party campaigned on the need to increase social welfare for the poor, has warned that equal attention should be given to domestic issues.

Prague, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 18 November, Turkey's newly appointed prime minister, Abdullah Gul, set to work by forming a cabinet that he pledged would implement a batch of social reforms aimed at alleviating the country's economic hardship. "May [the new cabinet] be beneficial for the country and the nation," Gul said, while revealing his team.

Gul officially took over from outgoing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit yesterday, and Turkey's 58th government immediately proceeded to work, holding its first meeting yesterday evening.

Seventy-seven-year-old Ecevit's Democratic Left Party suffered staggering losses in the recent polls and could not get a single representative in the new parliament. The outgoing prime minister put on a brave face as he handed over his office to his successor. "The honorable Mr. Gul is a successful and experienced politician. I believe that he will also be successful in his new post of prime minister. I wish him continuous success," Ecevit said.

Turkey's new government is composed entirely of members of the moderate Islamic Justice and Progress Party, or AKP, which won a landslide victory in the early parliamentary polls on 3 November. It also includes a dozen faces largely unknown to Turkish politics.

With 363 representatives in the 550-seat Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament), AKP is the first political formation to form a single-party cabinet since 1987.

Gul's government comprises 24 ministers, 10 fewer than in Ecevit's coalition cabinet.

Led by former Greater Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AKP emerged in August 2001 from a split within the now-banned Fazilet (Virtue) Party, a moderate Islamic group run behind the scenes by former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan.

Generally viewed as the mentor of Turkey's so-called political Islam in the overwhelmingly Muslim but secular country, Erbakan ran a coalition cabinet in 1996-97 until his overtly Islamic gestures, including controversial visits to Iran and Libya, prompted Turkey's influential military to force him out of office.

Although their disagreements with Erbakan were mainly related to the lack of democracy within the party, Fazilet dissidents have tried to distance themselves from their Islamic past. Drawing lessons from the successive bans imposed on Islamic parties in the past, AKP leaders have toned down any rhetoric that could raise eyebrows among Turkey's powerful "pashas," or army generals.

Erdogan and his fellow AKP members now claim they should be regarded as conservative politicians similar to Western Europe's Christian Democrats. Political analysts believe Gul's appointment as prime minister is emblematic of the party's stated democratic and market-oriented objectives.

Born in 1950 in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, Gul was trained as an economist. He studied in Turkey and Great Britain and worked for some time in Saudi Arabia before being twice elected to parliament as a member of the moderate Islamic Refah (Welfare) Party, Fazilet's predecessor.

In the late 1990s, Gul served as state minister in charge of foreign affairs in Erbakan's cabinet. Elected to parliament as a member of Fazilet in 1999, Gul was a founding member of AKP and became its deputy chairman.

People familiar with Turkey's new prime minister describe him as a soft-spoken, amiable man, who is distant from radical politics.

In her recent book on Turkey, American journalist Marvine Howe recalls talks in the late 1990s with Gul in which he would denounce Refah's harsh criticism of the European Union and the United States. On the domestic level, Gul also advocated the right of Turkish women to wear headscarves in public.

The so-called headscarves issue has been a source of tension in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk officially barred women from covering their heads in public places in the mid-1920s in an attempt to solidify the country's secularization.

The controversy has grown steadily over most of the past two decades and culminated three years ago when Fazilet deputy Merve Kavakci was evicted from parliament after attempting to take her oath wearing a headscarf.

The Turkish public expects AKP leaders to lift the ban imposed in the early 1980s on wearing headscarves in universities and other public institutions. But the issue may still cause friction with Turkey's staunchest secularists.

Turkish newspapers yesterday said President Ahmet Necdet Sezer had blocked AKP lawmaker Besir Atalay from the post of education minister for his alleged Islamic past. Atalay, however, remained on the cabinet list as a state minister without portfolio.

Upon Sezer's insistence, Gul selected Erkan Mumcu, a defector from Ecevit's center-right Motherland Party coalition partner and a newcomer in AKP, as education minister.

According to Erdogan, Sezer also argued against the appointment of Guldal Aksit, the only woman in the new cabinet, as state minister. Aksit was appointed tourism minister instead.

Turkish commentators have generally welcomed the new cabinet, saying the fact that it has an outright parliamentary majority bodes well for the future.

Talking to journalists on 16 November, immediately after Sezer appointed him prime minister, Gul vowed not to waste time and get to work as soon as possible. "Naturally, the problems that confront our people are very serious. So are the problems that confront Turkey. However, we, as a party, are very well prepared to solve them. Our people have given our party the power to rule on its own and my party has placed confidence in me [to run the government]. The time now has come to get down to work," Gul said.

Gul and his team face a demanding agenda.

AKP leaders have repeatedly said in the past that, should they come to power, Turkey's EU membership bid would be a foreign-policy priority.

Ankara, which applied for entry into the EU in 1987 and obtained candidate status only three years ago, would like European countries to set a date for the beginning of formal talks at a summit in Copenhagen next month.

Two weeks ago, AKP leader Erdogan began touring EU member countries in a bid to soothe Brussels' concerns over human rights violations and the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, a front-runner for accession into the 15-member bloc, which has been partly occupied by Turkish troops since 1974. Those two issues are generally seen as the main obstacles on Turkey's road to accession into the EU.

Erdogan, who on 16 November promised the emergence of a "new world that will bring the East and the West together in Turkey," has already visited Italy, Spain, and Greece. Yesterday, he began a three-day tour of Germany, Great Britain, and Belgium.

In a further attempt to reassure Western capitals, Gul has appointed Yasar Yakis, a career diplomat who served in Turkey's permanent mission to NATO, as foreign minister.

Addressing a meeting of NATO's Parliamentary Assembly in Istanbul yesterday, the new prime minister also reaffirmed ties with Europe and the United States. However, he said that in return for its support for a planned EU rapid-reaction force, Turkey wants its place recognized in Europe.

In his first interview as prime minister, Gul said on 16 November that however important foreign-policy issues will be for his cabinet, domestic problems will not be neglected. "All [problems] are equally important. In other words, we cannot neglect any one of them. Foreign[-policy] issues are important now because there is a time element, a countdown element involved in it, which is very important. But while taking an interest in foreign[-policy] issues, we should not neglect domestic issues, social issues. We will deal with them simultaneously and, with God's help, we will succeed," Gul said.

That same day, Erdogan, who has vowed to end Turkey's endemic corruption and alleviate the sufferings of the needy, unveiled an "emergency plan for action" designed to rescue Turkey from its worst economic recession since 1945.

Market analysts believe the blueprint, which gives priority to privatization, drastic cuts in public spending, and tax reforms, is likely to reassure the International Monetary Fund, its main sponsor, which this year alone committed $16 billion in loans to rescue Turkey's ailing economy. The next round of talks between Ankara and the IMF is due to open in January.

In what appears to be a further bid to reassure the IMF, Gul has appointed 35-year-old Ali Babacan, a graduate of the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in the United States, as state minister in charge of the economy. The post was occupied in the previous government by former World Bank director Kemal Dervis.

Erdogan reiterated that the new government would seek to renegotiate certain terms of the IMF pact to meet the needs of the most underprivileged sections of Turkey's 68-million-strong population. Twenty months of economic crisis have left tens of thousands of Turks without work and have halved the value of the national currency against the dollar.

Erdogan, who was barred from standing in the recent legislative election because of an earlier conviction for alleged Islamic sedition, could not legally assume the post of prime minister despite being the party chief. But political experts believe that he will be Turkey's true leader, in action, if not in post.

Some analysts also say Gul will head the cabinet only until parliament passes constitutional amendments that will allow Erdogan to take the helm. For that, AKP will need the support of just a handful of independent deputies or representatives from the left-wing Republican People's Party, the only other political body holding seats in the new legislature.

In an interview with Turkey's NTV private television channel, Gul did not rule out that Erdogan, who also faces several indictments for alleged corruption and embezzlement, could eventually become prime minister.

Brushing aside rumors about party infighting, Gul said Turkey's new leaders would set aside personal ambitions and work "in unison" for the benefit of the country, adding, "We have ended the old style of politics."

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