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Erdoğan’s new cabinet seen as attempt to soften his authoritarian image

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The new cabinet recently announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, featuring professionals with more moderate profiles than their predecessors in key positions, has been interpreted by observers as an attempt to ease the widespread perception of his authoritarian rule.

After winning a May 28 runoff election to extend his two-decade rule, Erdoğan on Saturday took the oath of office in parliament and announced a new cabinet at a lavish ceremony at his presidential palace.

He named Mehmet Şimşek, a reassuring figure with international stature, as treasury and finance minister. Şimşek served as finance minister between 2009 and 2015 and deputy prime minister in charge of the economy until 2018.

Erdoğan appointed the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Hakan Fidan, as foreign minister, and Turkey’s army chief, Gen. Yaşar Güler, as defense minister.

Mahinur Özdemir Göktaş, a Belgian-born Turkish diplomat who served as the country’s ambassador to Algeria, became the new family and social services minister and the only female member of the cabinet.

The newly formed cabinet was found by many observers, journalists and social media users to be a strategic maneuver by Erdoğan to improve his image and that of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), presenting them as being “democratic” and as making merit-based appointments.

Erdoğan is widely criticized for establishing one-man rule, especially after Turkey switched to a presidential system of governance with a public referendum in 2017, which granted Erdoğan vast powers. He was also accused in the past of filling state posts with his cronies rather than appointing people based on their qualifications.

Timur Kuran, a professor of economic and political development at Duke University, said in a tweet that Turkey’s new cabinet is “pleasantly surprising” with key seats being filled by professionals and not “the clown and the many thugs.”

Kuran provided one optimistic and one pessimistic interpretation of the development.

“[Either] Erdoğan now feels secure enough to dispense with his ministers whose primary function seemed to be stoking polarization and waging cultural wars … [or] the President is softening his regime’s image as a tactical retreat while his aides deal with the economic calamity he created,” Kuran said.

He argued that Erdoğan would force his ministers to “follow his old ways” or simply replace them whenever he considers their temporary mission complete.

Kerim Has, a Turkish Russia analyst who is based in Moscow, said Erdoğan appointed “perhaps the most UK-US inclined cabinet in the history of Turkey.” He added that there wasn’t even one minister who could be considered pro-Russia.

“I believe for the first time, a NATO secretary general attended the inauguration ceremony. It was also noteworthy that in the presence of [Doğu] Perinçek, Erdoğan expressed his gratitude to the NATO secretary general, [Jens Stoltenberg],” he continued.

Perinçek, leader of the ultranationalist Homeland Party (VP), is known for his anti-Western stance and support for Erdoğan.

Journalist Tarık Toros on Monday said in a column he wrote for the TR724 news website that Erdoğan “withdraws himself to the background and orchestrates a rearrangement of the front stage” as a strategy he “cleverly implements” at the beginning of his every term in office.

“The discussion surrounding the ‘new’ ministers and bureaucrats since the announcement of the first round of election results is a result of this. … If a leader who is strongly fixated on not allowing anyone or any individuals to surpass him has deliberately paved the way for this, it is necessary to pause and reflect,” Toros said.

A Twitter user named Can Okar also said new finance minister Şimşek must have been offered “a lot of money” to accept the position since he is “clever enough to know he’s going to get mashed when the time comes.”

“I am going to laugh so hard when Erdoğan sacks and also utterly destroys this guy. These people are gluttons for punishment,” he added.

Şimşek, who is known to oppose Erdoğan’s unconventional policies, served as deputy prime minister in charge of the economy until 2018, before stepping down ahead of a series of lira crashes that year.

Addressing the country’s economic troubles will be Erdoğan’s first priority in his new term, with inflation running at 43.70 percent, partly due to his unorthodox policy of cutting interest rates to stimulate growth.

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