ANKARA: Turkey’s Cabinet Reshuffle Another Balancing Act

by Amberin Zaman

Today’s Zaman
May 13 2009

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, announced his
long-awaited new Cabinet on May 1, ushering in nine new ministers and
letting go of eight others. It is too early to predict what impact
the new configuration will have on domestic and foreign policy. Is
the party going more conservative? Or does the reshuffle point toward
a return to its early reformist zeal.

The most likely answer is neither. The reshuffle, though dramatic
in its scope, reflects Erdogan’s hallmark strategy of balancing
different and often competing constituencies within his party. The
biggest surprise was the elevation of Bulent Arınc, the fiery former
parliament speaker, who leads the conservative/religious wing of
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as first deputy
prime minister. His return from the back benches is a sure sign that
Erdogan is worried by the gains made by the pro-Islamic Felicity Party
(SP) in the March 29 local polls. Overtly pious, Arınc has long railed
against corruption within and around the AK Party. A gifted orator,
Arınc enjoys greater moral authority than any other AK Party leader,
Erdogan included. Co-opting Arınc through a Cabinet job may help
curb his influence among Islamist malcontents within the AK Party.

In a sop to the nationalists, Cemil Cicek retained his twin hats as
deputy prime minister and state minister. His verbal salvoes against
non-Muslim minorities bodes ill for rapprochement with Armenia
or any overtures on the Cyprus dispute, as they do for EU reforms
as a whole. Cicek will un­doubtedly continue to mobilize fellow
nationalists within the AK Party against concessions on both.

To appease the liberals, Erdogan shifted Nimet Cubukcu from women’s
affairs to the highly sensitive Ministry of Education. Her predecessor,
Huseyin Celik, had become the target of pro-secularists over his
repeated attempts to legitimize Islamic education. Cubukcu, a lawyer
by training, is a vocal advocate of girls’ education. Prior to joining
the AK Party, she was a member of the Ä°stanbul branch of the main
opposition pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). Among her chief
mentors is AyÅ~_e Böhurler, an influential found­ing member of the AK
Party and a member of its executive board. She is among a handful of AK
Party members who dare to publicly criticize Erdogan. Böhurler wears
the Islamic-style headscarf, which excludes her from running for the
Parliament; for the uninitiated it belies a sharply feminist streak.

The good news for the financial community is the return of Ali Babacan,
Turkey’s foreign minister, to his previous job as the country’s
minister of the economy, a portfolio he is obviously more comfortable
with. This time Babacan has been given overall coordinating authority
for the economy. Bright, young and affable, Babacan has excellent
relations with Western bankers. His immediate task will be to persuade
Erdogan of the need for a fresh International Monetary Fund (IMF)
deal that is a crucial anchor for foreign investor confidence.

For the outside world, the most closely watched Cabinet post is that
of foreign minister, filled by Erdogan’s top foreign policy advisor,
Ahmet Davutoglu. He is the sole newcomer without a Parliamentary
seat. Nor is he formally a member of the AK Party. Rumors that the
former academic would be replacing Babacan had been swirling around for
sometime. Since Abdullah Gul left his job as foreign minister in 2007
to become the president, it has been the self-effacing Davutoglu who
has been guiding Turkish foreign policy, albeit from behind the scenes.

Turkey’s Western friends, and the former Bush administra­tion in
particular, viewed him at first with great suspicion, not least because
of his overtures to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Davutoglu is believed
to have helped orchestrate Meshaal’s visit to Ankara soon after Hamas’
election victory in January 2006. Davutoglu, many believed, wanted
to steer Turkey away from the West.

Today, Davutoglu is credited with bolstering Turkey’s regional clout
through a blizzard of overtures not only to Turkey’s long-neglected
Arab neighbors and to Iran, but to far-flung spots in Africa and
Asia as well. Davutoglu’s multi-pronged, proactive diplomacy (some
label it "neo-Ottomanism") sees Turkey rising to its rightful place
as a global power. The first step is to have "zero problems" with
its neighbors, and to help its neighbors have "zero problems" among
themselves. Turkey’s mediation between Syria and Israel (with talks
collapsing when Israel launched its January offensive against Gaza)
is the best example of Davutoglu’s approach. The second step means
brokering peace between Israel and its other regional foes: Lebanon,
Iran and Iraq. The "zero problem" phase would be followed by "maximum
coopera­tion," leading to a web of economic, political and cultural
ties with Turkey at its center.

It’s no coincidence that the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr chose to meet with his Shiite peers in Ä°stanbul after staying
out of public view the past two years. Turkey prides itself on its
connections to the different ethnic and religious factions in Iraq,
much of these forged by Davutoglu. The new foreign minister has
earned the respect of Washington and speaks enthusiastically of "a
golden age in Turkish-US ties," where the regional interests of both
countries converge. Davutoglu believes that between American muscle
and Turkish mediation most of the region’s problems can be solved.

There is little doubt that the Obama administration wants to trade in
on Turkey’s regional role. That is why the US president chose Turkey
for his first bilateral visit (not count­ing Canada) to a foreign
country. But there are several worries. One is that Davutoglu’s vision
of Turkey as a global player does not fit naturally with that of an
EU country, which makes decisions based on consensus among its members.

Davutoglu insists that EU membership remains among Turkey’s primary
goals, with the understanding that it is precisely thanks to Turkey’s
EU candidate status and its close links to Israel and the United States
that Ankara is taken so seriously by the rest of the world. The other
more pertinent worry is that Davutoglu is so used to freelancing that
he may have trouble adjusting to the constraints of being a minister
who needs to take account of his subordinates’ views. As an advisor,
Davutoglu was able to navigate successfully between the sometimes
clashing policies of Gul and Erdogan. The most recent example of this
was when Gul supported the for­mer Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh
Rasmussen’s bid to become NATO’s new secretary general. Erdogan was
vocally opposed. As foreign minister, Davutoglu will continue to liase
with Gul, but it is the prime minister who will have the final say.

This, in turn, raises the question of where Erdogan wants to lead
Turkey. The composition of the new Cabinet suggests that he will pursue
his balancing act, seeking to appease nationalists and liberals alike
and ploughing ahead with EU membership while bolstering ties with
the United States, the Arab world and beyond.

With Nagorno-Karabakh back into the mix, Erdogan’s local rivals,
no­tably the main opposition — the CHP and the far-right
National­ist Movement Party (MHP) — have jumped into the fray,
accusing the government of selling out "our Azeri brothers." The
results of nationwide municipal elections haven’t helped,
either. Erdogan’s AK Party saw its share of the popular vote slide

*Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and
writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf. This article was
published by the US-based German Marshall Fund on May 11.

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