Turkey's president approves new government led by ally

AP News
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Posted: May 24, 2016 1:01 PM
Turkey's president approves new government led by ally

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's president on Tuesday approved a new government formed by one of his most trusted allies, who immediately asserted the intention to institute constitutional reforms that would expand the powers of the presidency.

The new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, replaced Ahmet Davutoglu, who stepped down on Sunday. Davutoglu had a range of differences with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including seemingly lukewarm support for a constitutional overhaul to give executive powers to the largely ceremonial presidency.

"We will immediately start work to achieve a new constitution, including a presidential system," the 60-year-old Yildirim told lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in his first speech after taking office.

"Our priority is to render the constitution more in harmony with the de-facto situation regarding our president's ties to the people," said Yildirim, formerly minister of transport and communications.

Many fear the system that Erdogan seeks will concentrate too many powers in the hands of the Turkish strongman, who has adopted an increasingly authoritarian style of governing, has cracked down on media and government critics and is accused of meddling in the running of the government in breach of the constitution.

The new government includes nine new names, although most ministers from Davutoglu's previous Cabinet retained key portfolios.

They include Mevlut Cavusoglu, who remains foreign minister, and Mehmet Simsek, who kept his seat as deputy prime minister although it wasn't immediately clear if he would still be in charge of the economy.

Volkan Bozkir, the minister in charge of relations with the European Union, was replaced by Omer Celik, a founding member of the AKP who is known to be close to the president. Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, kept his position as energy minister.

At a news conference in Istanbul, Erdogan admitted that he was involved in the selection of ministers.

"The prime minister presented me with a list last night. I worked on that list. This morning, we held a consultation after which I gave my approval," Erdogan said.

In a clear sign that Erdogan would continue to influence the government, he was scheduled to chair the new Cabinet's first meeting at his palace on Wednesday.

"Tomorrow, the first meeting of the council of ministers will be held... under my chairmanship," Erdogan said. "The fight against domestic and international terrorism will be high on our agenda."

Domestically, the political reshuffling takes place as Turkey faces serious security threats including increased attacks by Kurdish and Islamic State militants. It also comes as parliament is in disarray after a government-backed constitutional amendment has left 138 lawmakers vulnerable to prosecution.

Internationally, Turkey is also facing a delicate moment in its relations with the European Union. The implementation of a Turkey-EU deal to help stem the influx of migrants to Europe — which Davutoglu had helped negotiate — has repeatedly come into question.

Erdogan has warned that the migrant deal could collapse if the Europeans renege on their pledges to grant Turkish citizens the right to visa-free travel. The EU says Ankara must meet all of the EU's conditions to secure visa-free travel, including narrowing the definition of "terrorist" — which Erdogan says is out of the question.

Yildirim reaffirmed his determination to press ahead with military operations against Kurdish rebels, saying the fight would continue until the insurgents end attacks and abandon arms. The decades-long conflict against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, flared up again last year with the collapse of a fragile peace process, costing hundreds of lives.

The new prime minister also promised to mend Turkey's ties with a number of countries, in an apparent jab at Davutoglu, a former foreign minister, who conceived Turkey's troubled policy on Syria and under whom relations with Israel, Russia, Egypt and others were soured.

"We will increase the number of our friends; we will decrease the number of our enemies," Yildirim said.

Yildirim, in his speech, called on opposition parties to support efforts to write a new constitution. The ruling party lacks the supermajority needed in parliament for constitutional amendments and is believed to be hoping for the support of the nationalist party. That party's leader, however, said he would not support the plan.

"With the introduction of a presidential system the fragile balance between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary will be disrupted, all power will be concentrated in one hand," nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli said. "While searching for democracy, we will inevitably find despotism."

In a related development, a high court on Tuesday backed a group of nationalist party dissidents' petition to hold an extraordinary congress that could pave the way for a leadership change.

Analysts say that a leadership switch could help the nationalist party win back votes it has lost to the ruling party over the years and derail Erdogan's ambitions for a powerful presidency.

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Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed to this report.