Erdoğan’s Agenda:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, on June 3, a near-complete change in the formation of his new government. It included prominent names and meaningful changes suggestive of the type of policies Erdoğan plans to pursue over the next five years. The current lineup is expected to oversee a major leap, especially in Turkey’s economy and foreign policy. The new government’s formation comes after Erdoğan managed to extend his two-decade rule following his victory in the presidential elections with 52.18% of the vote, compared to his rival Kılıçdaroğlu’s 47.82%, in the wake of a campaign in which he was challenged by the opposition on his economic record. The new government could be a key tool for Erdoğan to consolidate his power and prepare for the upcoming elections, especially local elections.

Main Features

The new government included a group of ministers with a great deal of importance, which indicates a fundamental change in foreign policy, security and the economy. The most important features of the new government’s formation are:

1. Betting on a technocratic government: The new government saw a notable decline in the presence of senior leaders from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in favor of technocrats. Some major, influential Turkish figures were present, such as former intelligence chief Hakan Fidan as foreign minister and former Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, who was chosen to take over the position once more. In parallel, the majority of the new ministers were bureaucratic cadres within their ministries, so can be described as technocrats. This does not apply to the new Vice President Cevdet Yılmaz, who is considered an AKP leader, unlike former Vice President Fuat Oktay.

2. Abandoning prominent government figures: Erdoğan chose to abandon a number of prominent government figures in the formation of the new government. The new government is devoid of party leadership names, unlike the one before it, in which the ministers of foreign affairs, the interior, and justice were prominent AKP leaders. This has major implications, including that Erdoğan aims to promote the beginning of a new era in Turkish politics. It also reflects Erdoğan’s keenness not to keep officials in their posts for long periods of time, which would give them greater political influence. At the same time, the move rotates elites through more than one position. For example, some former prominent ministers, such as Süleyman Soylu, Hulusi Akar, and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, became members of Turkish Parliament.

3. Changing the course of Erdoğan’s economic policies: Erdoğan’s decision to reappoint Mehmet Şimşek—the former deputy prime minister and minister of treasury and finance who is widely accepted among companies and investors—as the head of treasury and finance, indicates that the Turkish president may change his path regarding economic policies. He has long been criticized for these policies, especially after causing the Turkish lira to plunge to its lowest-ever levels as inflation rates increased to unprecedented levels. Şimşek is known for his pragmatic approach. He previously called for economic reforms aimed at boosting growth, attracting foreign investment, and ensuring fiscal discipline. Additionally, the selection of Cevdet Yılmaz—who has held a number of important economic positions in recent years—as vice president signals a possible shift in Erdoğan’s economic policy, and is evidence that the economy is his current priority.

4. Benefitting from Fidan’s foreign policy experience: The appointment of Hakan Fidan as foreign minister may be a clear sign of continuity in the course of transforming Turkey’s existing foreign policies on the basis of rapprochement with regional powers that began more than two years ago. Fidan has not only participated in and coordinated foreign policy, but also been a part of it and related decision-making of late. He led the process of rapprochement with a number of regional powers and played a prominent role in the Syria and Libya files in particular. He is also a seasoned man familiar with all foreign policy files.

It should be noted that Fidan is, according to a report by the Euronews website, one of Erdoğan’s closest confidants. He previously held the post of diplomatic adviser to the president for three years, and then headed the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) since 2010. He succeeded in holding a number of talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) until they were revealed by Turkish newspapers in 2011 and collapsed as a result. In 2012, prosecutors suspected that Fidan overstepped his powers in talks with the Kurdish rebels, and he was accused of high treason at the time. The Turkish president came out the same year to praise and support Fidan, saying "he is my secret keeper, the secret keeper of the Republic of Turkey, and the secret keeper of Turkey’s future." In addition to that, Fidan recently led negotiations with several Arab countries: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Libya, as well as Syria, with the Turkish president is trying to reengage with through Moscow.

5. Keeping the tourism and health portfolios unchanged: The new government formation did not change the ministers of tourism or health, especially as the AKP did not nominate them within their parliamentary lists. Retaining the two ministers is tied to their respective success in carrying out their duties in recent years, as well as their keenness to stay out of political jockeying. According to some estimates, Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy was able to boost the state’s resources by around $12 billion due to the flourishing tourism sector since he took office in 2018. For his part, Health Minister Fattretin Koca gained a good reputation during the COVID-19 pandemic, adopting many measures that helped confront it, not to mention his role in developing the health sector’s infrastructure.

6. Presence of figures close to the Turkish president: The new government included some figures known for their close ties to Turkish President Erdoğan. Perhaps the most prominent example of that is the Minister of Family and Social Services, Mahinur Özdemir Göktaş, who some reports describe as Erdoğan’s "spiritual daughter." Özdemir, according to an Arabi Post report, speaks "fluent Dutch, English, and French, in addition to her native Turkish. She was born in 1982 in the Belgian capital Brussels to an immigrant family from the Turkish province of Konya. Özdemir holds a bachelor’s degree in human resources engineering from the Free University of Brussels (ULB) and a master’s degree in public administration. She has worked in city planning, zoning, the environment, housing, and the fight against discrimination in the workplace."

The same report adds that "Özdemir was elected to European Parliament for Brussels for two terms from 2009-2019. She was the first veiled representative elected to European Parliament, but was expelled from her Humanist Democratic Centre Party (CDH) for refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as a genocide. She continued in politics as an independent representative until her term ended in 2019, and was appointed Turkish Ambassador to Algeria in 2019. She is the first ambassador appointed by Turkey in North Africa."

7. Attempting to link the government and the Turkish Century project: Erdoğan tried to impart a positive impression of the new government, considering it part of the Turkish Century project aimed at strengthening Turkey’s global standing and as dedication to Erdoğan’s vision for the Turkish system, especially in relation to drafting a new constitution. Before announcing the formation of the government, the Turkish president stated, "we will have a government worthy of the second century of our republic. We will continue on the path with cadres dedicated to our ideals for the sake of a great and strong Turkey," adding "we will never stop renewing our staff, and we will never stop again. We continue on our way with a dynamic team. We have many valuable names: there will be names in our government that will keep pace with the Turkish Century vision."

Thorny Issues

Given Ankara’s importance in regional and international arenas, the government faces many difficult tasks to ensure it can address its domestic problems in order to be free to devote itself to foreign issues. The main axes of this government’s work are:

1. Achieving economic stability: After Erdoğan pressured the central bank to lower interest rates despite wildly high inflation levels—the approach that sank Turkey into the currency crisis—the new finance minister is expected to correct what has been spoiled. However, this does not necessarily mean that Erdoğan will back down from his stance on raising interest rates. It is hoped, however, that Şimşek will work to bring back Western investments that fled Turkey by any means possible. Their return would help bridge financing gaps in Turkey, especially as many investors are wary about the extent of Şimşek’s ability to achieve fundamental reforms to the Turkish economy.

In this regard, local Turkish newspapers reported government leaks confirming that Turkey’s new Minister of Treasury and Finance Mehmet Şimşek "stipulated" that the Turkish president not interfere in the affairs of the Turkish Central Bank, which recently succumbed to the president’s desire to lower the interest rate. Şimşek is expected to work to raise the interest rate, in accordance with the Turkish Central Bank’s financial policies.

2. Seeking diverse sources to finance Turkey’s economy: Turkey’s new government will seek new sources to finance the Turkish economy. Indications of that emerged in reports that noted, on June 5, that Ankara would raise transit fees through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits by more than 8% starting on July 1. With the application of this measure, Turkey’s annual income from transit revenues is expected to increase to $900 million. Moreover, the Turkish government will work to accelerate steps to implement the gas center project to Europe. Turkey’s president said following his victory that he would implement the project, and that it would strengthen "Turkey’s position by bringing in investments in transportation and energy."

3. Developing Turkish relations with neighboring countries: Ankara is expected to continue its policy of appeasement with countries of the region. With former Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan taking over as the new foreign minister, rapprochement is expected between Turkey and neighboring countries. Fidan is one of the leaders of Turkey’s rapprochement process with Middle Eastern countries, most prominently Egypt. He was also responsible for the process of negotiations with Syria. He is expected to continue Turkey’s rapprochement with these neighboring countries. According to Turkish political analyst Nevzat Savaş’s comments to Sky News Arabia, "talks are expected to take place about the files of Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia, whose prime minister attended Erdoğan’s inauguration ceremony. This is a sign of a possible breakthrough in this file, which has been difficult for decades, especially since he had a role in sending aid and rescue groups during the recent earthquake."

4. Continuing to strengthen Turkish influence in vital spheres: Ankara is expected to continue efforts to strengthen its presence in the Caucasus, especially through aiding Azerbaijan in Karabakh and opening the strategic Zanzegur corridor linking Turkey to the Caucasus and Central Asia. This also applies to the Balkans region. Ankara is likely to continue to commit to its presence in the region. Signs of this perhaps became clear with the Turkish defense ministry’s announcement on June 4 of the deployment of a Turkish commando battalion from the 65th Mechanized Infantry Brigade in Kosovo at the request of NATO, in light of recent tensions.

5. Strengthening domestic control policies: The new government is likely to work to strengthen domestic control policies and deal with files pivotal to opposition rhetoric critical of the Turkish president. These issues are an important factor for Erdoğan to attract such votes, including those counted for the losing candidate in the first round of the presidential elections, Sinan Oğan, who announced his support for the president in the runoff. The new Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya has vowed to continue the course of former Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu in Turkey’s battles against terrorism, irregular migration, and crime.

The new government will also work, according to an Alsharq News report, to develop effective procedures for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to Syria. Erdoğan recently pledged that his country would not return Syrian refugees to their country through expulsion or coercion, noting that they would return to housing Turkey would build in northern Syria. He also announced his country’s intention—with support from international relief organizations—to build 200,000 housing units at 13 sites in Syria, in a step aimed at the return of one million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. He also announced the continuation of the path of rapprochement with Syrian regime, which would increase the likelihood of solving the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey.

6. Preparing for upcoming local elections: The broad changes in the new government come before the municipal elections slated for March 2024. These elections could allow the AKP to regain control over Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two largest cities. Erdoğan will pressure members of his new government to accelerate the implementation of the policies needed to ensure he regains influence in both cities.

It can be asserted that Erdoğan has finally decided to stem the bleeding of his foreign conflicts and take a more pragmatic approach in dealing with various regional and international powers. This is in addition to intensifying his focus on addressing all the economic problems facing Turkey’s economy since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing global economic crises against the backdrop of the global supply chain crisis and geopolitical tensions in Europe. Accordingly, Erdoğan formed an essentially new government, in a sign of his revolution against his old policies that hurt his country’s economy while building on foreign affairs reforms.