The cabinet appointments hint at a return to orthodox economic policy while holding course on foreign policy as the president heads into his third decade in power.
On the economic front, the return of Mehmet Simsek as finance minister – a post he previously held between 2009 and 2015 before going on to become Erdogan’s deputy prime minister – has been eagerly anticipated in business circles at home and abroad.
When Simsek’s predecessor Nureddin Nebati officially handed over his portfolio on Sunday, microphones picked up a sigh of relief from him. That was no surprise given the state of the Turkish economy. Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies over the past few years have led to a cost-of-living crisis and a plummeting Turkish lira. Efforts to defend the battered currency have resulted in Turkish central bank reserves dropping to record lows. The lira plunged 7% on Wednesday, hitting 22.98 against the US dollar, Reuters reported. That’s what Simsek is up against as he takes office.
“Transparency, consistency, predictability and compliance with international norms will be our basic principles in achieving this goal in the upcoming period,” Simsek said in his first speech since being appointed to the post. “Turkey has no choice but to return to a rational basis. A rule-based, predictable Turkish economy will be the key to achieving the desired prosperity.”
With that message Simsek may be able to convince foreign investors and instill enough hope domestically to keep the G20 economy afloat.
But his real uphill battle might be in convincing Erdogan himself. While Simsek will likely be the chief architect of a new economic policy, the president’s other appointments suggest he may be leveraging different economic visions, according to Mehmet Celik, editorial coordinator at the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper. Vice President Cevdet Yilmaz is a career bureaucrat and economist, and Trade Minister Omer Bolat comes from a business background. “The picks were strategic so that there will be a new balance,” Celik told CNN.
In the international arena, Turkey has deployed a muscular policy implemented through the foreign and defense ministries along with Turkish intelligence that has expanded its reach regionally and carved out an independent path for the NATO member. In that regard, continuity is likely.
The new foreign minister is a well-known figure to Turks and international players who have negotiated with Turkey of late. Hakan Fidan, who had served as head of Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT) since 2010, has been in every room and every discussion that has been pivotal to Turkish foreign policy over the last few years. He’s been ever-present but rarely heard – a shadow diplomat in Erdogan’s foreign policy arsenal who has charted rough waters in Syria, Libya and beyond.
Fidan has played a central role in shaping and carrying out foreign policy along with former chief spokesperson and de facto national security adviser Ibrahim Kalin, who has now taken his old job as intelligence chief.
“I will continue to improve our national foreign policy vision, which is based on the sovereign will of our people and independence of our state from all spheres of influence,” Fidan said in his handover ceremony.
Ankara’s foreign policy has put it on a collision course with neighbors, allies and partners including Greece, with which it has tense relations in the eastern Mediterranean, and Western countries, over the perceived threat from Kurdish groups backed by the US in northern Syria.
“There is a willingness from Turkey to put (its) guard down when it comes to the West,” he said. “But when it’s all take and no give from the West, Turkey doesn’t want to settle for that… It will continue to put its foot down and stand against being dictated to,” said Celik.
Those strained relations will not be easy to mend but Fidan has been masterful in his previous role as spymaster in finding ways to negotiate breakthroughs in difficult relations. He has stepped in to mend frayed ties with Gulf Arab states, and has been a driving force behind the slow rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara. The shadow diplomat now enters an era where he is the main voice for Turkey abroad.
All eyes will be on him as he navigates Sweden’s attempt to join NATO. While the US and European NATO members have been in a hurry to admit the Scandinavian country, Turkey has held up membership due to what Ankara says is Sweden’s harboring of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey, the EU and the US. Sweden has acknowledged that the group’s activities in the country were “extensive” and “a bigger problem than we realized”.
Softer-spoken interior minister
At the interior ministry, Suleyman Soylu, a self-styled tough guy, is being replaced by career bureaucrat and former governor of Istanbul Ali Yerlikaya. Its portfolio is one of the country’s largest. Yerlikaya’s main areas of focus will be the ongoing response to the earthquake which killed more than 50,000 people in southern Turkey, the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country and the continued counter-terrorism efforts against the PKK.
The fight against terrorism, which has broad support across the political spectrum in Turkey, is likely to remain the same but the tone of the ministry is likely to change, according to Celik. Yerlikaya is a softer-spoken politician who has quietly run Istanbul since 2018 and is unlikely to emulate Soylu’s harsh rhetorical style. A shift in tone may serve to bridge some of the social divide that has plagued Turkey in recent years.
The outgoing cabinet members are, however, far from retired. Soylu, former Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and ex-Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu are all lawmakers from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). They’ve just been sworn in for their new terms in parliament, highlighting the party’s tremendous strength there. Their voices will likely echo louder than those of opposition MPs, who now will face an even tougher time convincing voters of their chops in the legislature.
Overall, the new cabinet is a departure from the political appointments that have defined the era in Turkey following the attempted coup in 2015, instead drawing on a strong pool of technocrats.
As Erdogan leads the Turkish republic into its second century, he appears to be employing a back-to-the-basics approach. With social polarization at an all-time high, the economy in crisis and a region that is rife with difficulties, the cabinet has potential to reset some economic missteps of the previous years while holding the line on foreign policy. But a lot will come down to what Erdogan wants, because in Turkey, the buck stops with him.