Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the presidential runoff on May 28 and was sworn in on Saturday. At the same time, Erdogan appointed his new cabinet. Erdogan changed the entire cabinet except for two names. Only the health minister and the culture and tourism minister remained.
What is striking are the changes in the most important posts, which raise questions about Erdogan’s new route.
New names, old patterns?
Erdogan brought Mehmet Şimşek back as finance minister after he had to vacate his post in 2018. After that, with Erdogan’s son-in-law at the head of the finance ministry, the Turkish economy collapsed rapidly. Although Şimşek is considered a classic economist who rejects Erdogan’s low interest rate policy and has good contacts in other European countries through his previous activities, financial experts fear that he too will not be able to stop the economic crisis.
Süleyman Soylu, who is seen as a right-wing hardliner and involved in mafia scandals, is no longer the country’s interior minister. The bureaucrat Ali Yerlikaya, who previously served as governor of Istanbul, was appointed to the post. Soylu was one of the most controversial personalities of the last period of government, who acted rigorously, especially on the Kurdish question. Yerlikaya, on the other hand, has hardly appeared in the media.
The new foreign minister is Hakan Fidan, longtime head of the Turkish secret service. Fidan is a close confidante of Erdogan. He worked for NATO as a young officer. Fidan could thus become a new link between Turkey and the West, with which relations have deteriorated in recent years.
There is only one woman in Erdogan’s new cabinet, who, like her predecessor, will also hold the post of family minister. The appointment of Mahinur Özdemir Göktaş is interesting for two reasons. On the one hand, the appointment of the only woman as family minister raises questions about the Turkish government’s image of women, since it is often accused of limiting the role of women to the family. On the other hand, it is a commitment to continued denial of the Armenian genocide and the European position on this issue. The politician was dismissed from her party as a Belgian parliamentarian in 2015 after publicly opposing the official recognition of the Armenian genocide.
A new Kurdish policy?
However, the composition of the cabinet, combined with the new parliament, also raises other issues that could be key decisions for Turkey’s domestic politics. The so-called ‘Kurdish question’ is the country’s longest unresolved domestic problem. Millions of Kurds in the country are still demanding more rights. One party that is very committed to the cultural and political rights of the Kurds is the HDP. It once again became the strongest party in parliamentary elections in most of the country’s Kurdish provinces. But for the Turkish government, the HDP is no longer a dialogue partner. At the latest since the ruling AKP entered into a coalition with the far-right MHP, it broke off all contact with the party. Since then, the HDP has been criminalized more than before. During the election campaign, the party was constantly defamed as a “political offshoot of a terrorist organization”.
Instead, Erdogan and the AKP backed the Hüda-Par. The Hüda-Par is a Kurdish-dominated radical Islamist political party that has its origins in the banned organization ‘Hizbullah’ (Arabic Party of God), which, especially in the dark 1990s, defeated hundreds of political opponents from the predecessors of the HDP, but also Soldiers and policemen murdered. The abbreviation ‘Hüda-Par’ means ‘Party of God’ in Persian, but also in Kurdish (xwedê, xweda), whereby the party itself makes no secret of its origin.
Although the party also represents the rights of Kurds in the wording of its program and sometimes even makes radical demands, it was not criminalized and instead was even accepted into the alliance, which is dominated by right-wing and right-wing extremist parties. The Hüda-Par sent four deputies to parliament through the lists of the AKP. In addition, the party is becoming more and more present with state support in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey. In cities like Diyarbakir (Kurdish Amed) or Batman, supporters of the parties have opened several Koran schools, where teaching is mainly in Kurdish. At the same time, however, Kurdish courses run by the HDP or its supporters are criminalized and usually banned and closed.
Harder course with own ‘Kurdish’ agenda?
Now the new cabinet is also in favor of a reorientation of Erdogan’s Kurdish policy. Most of the country’s Kurdish provinces voted against Erdogan in the presidential elections. At least four of the new ministers have Kurdish roots. Deputy President Cevdet Yılmaz comes from Bingöl, Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek comes from Batman and Health Minister Fahrettin Koca from a Kurdish town near Konya. In addition, important posts were reassigned. Hardliner Süleyman Soylu, known for his heavy hand against Kurdish politicians and activists, is no longer the country’s interior minister. Instead, a new unknown name was brought in for him with Ali Yerlikaya. Whether this will act like its predecessor is unlikely. With these political moves, Erdogan could therefore hope that he can generate Kurdish votes for himself without having granted cultural rights that could annoy the far-right coalition partners.
The new foreign minister was Hakan Fidan, ex-intelligence chief who also led the peace talks with the PKK, which ultimately failed. Fidan had worked for NATO before his political career and is now likely to convey Turkey’s views on the Kurdish question more clearly to the outside world. Erdogan is likely to hope that Fidan will be able to better present Turkey’s concerns to Turkey’s western partners. In Syria, Turkey is waging war against the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and has occupied large parts of the country. A political administration at its borders, in which Kurds are also involved, is a nightmare scenario for the Turkish government. However, views on this differ in the West. The US operates with the region’s armed forces, the SDF, against ISIS, while Turkey continues to fight the SDF. Hakan Fidan is likely to put pressure on the West here and fight any Kurdish desire for autonomy more vigorously.
It appears that the Turkish government, through the new cabinet and political cronies like Hüda-Par, will launch a new Kurdish policy while continuing to fight the independent political will of Kurds, both at home and abroad. However, it is still inconceivable that the Turkish government would guarantee the Kurds legal rights.