ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) – Turkey’s new president approved a Cabinet with a mix of Islamist and secular figures, many with reformist backgrounds that signal the Islamic-oriented government’s commitment to winning entry into the European Union.
President Abdullah Gul, a devout Muslim who has pledged to respect the country’s traditional separation of religion and state, swiftly signed off on a Cabinet proposed by his old ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The 25-member Cabinet, which includes eight new members, has strong business credentials and appears designed to project a moderate image. “We will work for more freedoms and for more economic welfare,” Erdogan said after Gul approved the list Wednesday. “We will continue on our path, with a new enthusiasm, with the new blood that we have brought in. We have formed a strong team.” Opponents have said they will watch Gul closely for signs of cronyism at the expense of the presidency’s traditional role as a check on government. Gul, who won the presidency in a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, has the power to veto legislation and official appointments.
Nearly four months ago, the military-backed opposition forced Gul to abandon an earlier bid for the presidency because it feared he would erode secular traditions. On Wednesday, he was ensconced in the presidential palace, where Erdogan met him for an hour and a half to discuss the new Cabinet.
One of the most prominent Cabinet members is Ali Babacan, the former economy minister who takes over as foreign minister, a post left vacant when Gul was elected president. The U.S.-educated Babacan played a pivotal role in lifting Turkey out of recession and is an advocate of European Union membership.
Babacan, 40, is one of the youngest ministers in the government. He retains his role as chief negotiator for EU membership. Babacan, who earned a business degree at Northwestern University, acted as steward of economic reforms that were backed by the International Monetary Fund.
One figure who was notably absent from the Cabinet was Bulent Arinc, the former parliament speaker who is considered strongly religious and less given to compromise.
Arinc, who co-founded the ruling Justice and Development Party with Erdogan in 2001, drew the ire of secularists earlier this year by calling for the election of a “religious” president.
Erdogan brought in at least three ministers with no history of involvement in the Islamic movement. They included Mehmet Simsek, a British-educated banker who resigned from his job with Merrill Lynch to become a state minister with responsibility for the treasury portfolio Babacan once held.
Ertugrul Gunay, appointed culture and tourism minister, joined the ruling party after leaving the Republican People’s Party, the secular opposition group that helped derail a presidential bid by Gul in the spring. Gunay replaced Atilla Koc, a former provincial governor known for his deeply religious background.
Another newcomer is Zafer Caglayan, appointed industry minister. He formerly headed the chamber of industry in Ankara, the capital.
Ugur Civelek, a prominent Turkish economist, noted that Erdogan appointed one of his economic aides, Nazim Ekren, to be deputy prime minister and kept Kemal Unakitan, who has led the privatization of state assets, as his finance minister. “They clearly tried to seem sympathetic to the business world and give the message to the financial markets that their policies will remain the same,” Civelek said.
Contrary to some expectations, the Cabinet did not feature more women. Nimet Cubukcu, the minister in charge of women’s and family affairs, remained its only female member. Gul has said he will campaign for gender equality. The approval of the Cabinet was smooth in comparison with the previous president’s dealings with the current government. Gul’s staunchly secular predecessor, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, was said to have crossed off names on a Cabinet list and demanded that some key portfolios, including defense and education, be reassigned.
Senior military generals did not attend the president’s swearing-in ceremony in parliament Tuesday, and local media interpreted their absence as a protest against Gul, their new commander-in-chief. But they stood at attention as Gul entered a military medical academy Wednesday to attend a graduation ceremony.
Gul’s wife, who wears an Islamic-style head scarf that is banned on military premises, did not attend the event. The military, which has ousted four governments since 1960, has vowed to safeguard Turkish secularism.