Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer approved on November 18th Abdullah Gul as the country’s next prime minister and a list of cabinet ministers as the new government races to meet a fast fading window for a start to EU membership talks.
The choice of Gul, a confidante of Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan - who is banned from claiming the top post for himself - was no surprise, and the list of approved candidates for cabinet posts passed with little revision, though it was reported that Sezer balked at the first choice for education minister because of the candidate’s perceived encouragement of religious sects at the university where the deputy was once a rector.
It is unclear for how long Gul will occupy the post of prime minister, and AKP, already walking a tightrope because of its Islamist roots in a fiercely secular country, has made no secret that Gul will warm the chair of premier until Erdogan, barred from parliament, can claim it for himself. The party has two options through which it can navigate the vagaries of constitutional law, and it has made no secret of the fact that putting Erdogan in office is a pressing matter for the new government. "This will not be a lengthy job. It will take a month at the most," Erdogan said recently of the task ahead.
Erdogan said his party would first try to change the law that stipulates that the president appoint the prime minister from among deputies in parliament. However, though the largest party of the two in parliament, the AKP is four seats short of the two-thirds required to amend the constitution. The party could also change the law that bars those convicted of "ideological" crimes from entering parliament, which, if successful, would allow Erdogan to enter parliament through a by-election, which could be prompted if 28 of the AKP’s deputies were to resign.
Erdogan is banned from politics because of a past conviction for inciting religious hatred because a poem he recited publicly contained religious references deemed seditious.
Meanwhile, Erdogan is acting the part of a new head of government, even if he does not have all of its laurels. He is pushing hard to make Turkey’s case for a start to membership talks to join the European Union. In a whirlwind five-nation tour of European capitals, Erdogan has sought to smooth the way for a positive sign from Brussels that Turkey is on the track to membership ahead of an EU summit in Copenhagen on December 12th. He will also have to soothe (much denied) fears over allowing Muslim Turkey into the European club. "We do not see the European Union as a Christian club and we do not want it to be considered as such," Erdogan said on November 19th in Berlin after meeting German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer.
But there are other sticking points to Turkey’s receiving "a clear and concrete perspective" on its membership, and none likely loom larger than the Cyprus dispute. Erdogan has broken taboos on Turkey’s view of the Cyprus issue, saying on November 20th in Ankara that Turkey’s own EU drive was connected to the resolution of the Cyprus dispute. The United Nations drafted a plan ahead of the Copenhagen summit which will pave the way for the island’s accession to the EU. "Our present efforts now on Cyprus are to secure our entry to the European Union in a structure that is harmonious or, in other words, synchronised with Cyprus. I believe that a decision on December 12th that would secure that would relieve both sides," Erdogan said. "We are ready to deliberate on the Kofi Annan plan. We are for negotiations and we believe results can only be achieved through negotiations."
Abdullah Gul, for his part, has tried to allay fears that the conservative AKP would break with Turkey’s traditional ties to the West. "During my tenure, Turkey will maintain its focus on both its strategic partnership with the US and its candidacy for EU membership," Gul told a NATO parliamentary assembly in Ankara on November 19th. The US is pressuring the EU to give a positive response to Turkey, as it prepares for a possible strike on Iraq. Turkish air bases are seen as essential to any attack against Iraq.
But Turkey, implementing a $16bn IMF-backed economic reform package meant to pull it from its economic malaise, is loath to see a repeat of the loss of billions of dollars in cross-border trade it says it suffered as the result of the current embargo against Iraq. Additionally, Ankara has warned against the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq which it fears would stoke separatist aspirations among its own Kurdish population.
"We obviously are aware of and sensitive to Turkish concerns, and we’ve talked to them about this… in terms of the future of Iraq and our interests in an Iraqi state and its territorial integrity," a US official told reporters after President Sezer met US President George Bush ahead of a NATO summit in Prague on November 20th. The US is reportedly considering an initial $700m in aid to offset any economic losses incurred by Turkey as the result of a US invasion of the country’s eastern neighbour, Reuters reported.