A neo-Ottoman agenda

The new Presidential system is the biggest overhaul of governance since the Turkish republic was established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

With his recent decisive victory in the national elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his grip on power.

The election was the first since Turkish voters narrowly approved a referendum last year to give the President sweeping powers. Under the new system, the office of the Prime Minister has been abolished, Parliament's powers are curtailed and Erdogan has been allowed to rule by decree.

Erdogan has been exercising these powers under the state of emergency introduced after the failed coup attempt in 2016, but placing them on a permanent footing, the Turkish President has made himself immeasurably more powerful.

The introduction of the new Presidential system is the biggest overhaul of governance since the Turkish republic was established on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. Erdogan's supporters see the changes as just reward for a leader who has put Islamic values at the core of public life, championed the pious working classes, and overseen years of strong economic growth.

His critics say the move marks a lurch to authoritarianism, accusing Erdogan of eroding the secular institutions set up by modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and driving it further from Western values of democracy and free speech.

Erdogan who assumed the office of the President last week will undoubtedly be flexing his muscles both domestically and internationally to pursue his neo-Ottoman agenda. This may further destabilise the Middle East and pose serious challenges to the United States, European Union and NATO in particular.

He is likely to pursue his anti-West sentiment and policies that will undermine the West and their allies' interests in the Middle East. He is already working with Russia and Iran, sidelining the US to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.

In his new Cabinet, there are few names that are unchanged, while the newcomers are from the bureaucracy, business or non-governmental organisations having considerable experience in their respective field. The selection of ministers reflected the dynamics of the Turkish Presidential system and its upcoming foreign policy.

The surprise induction into the Cabinet is that of Army Chief of General Staff since 2015, Gen Hulusi Akar as the new Defence Minister. It is for the first time in Turkish history that an army chief has been appointed as the Defence Minister.

For decades, the Turkish military has played a significant role in influencing the nation's politics. It has carried out several coups d'etat and dislodged democratically elected governments since 1960. Akar's appointment as Defence Minister indicates the changing balance of power in Turkey.

Among those who have retained their post is Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. He has been holding the portfolio since 2014 and has overseen the Turkish military operations conducted against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq, as also cross-border actions against elements threatening the country's security and stability. His reappointment reflects there would be no change in the country's foreign policy.

There are several sticky foreign policy issues that the new government has to deal with like Turkey's ties with Europe and the US and, strengthening its cooperation with countries in the region over common threats they face by terror groups in Syria and Iraq.

In his victory speech, Erdogan sounded combative when he promised to "fight Turkey's enemies" at home and abroad.

He is expected to take a tough line with the West on issues including the Syria conflict, Russian relations and migrants in his new term.

Turkey and the US have been at loggerheads over a number of issues—from American support for a Syrian Kurdish militia despised by Ankara to Washington's failure to extradite Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of ordering the 2016 failed coup.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have forged an increasingly strong alliance based on seeking peace in Syria after patching up relations strained by Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane in 2015.

Ties between Turkey and the European Union have been particularly strained since the crackdown that followed the attempted overthrow of Erdogan in July 2016 with EU member states calling on Ankara to lift the state of emergency.

Erdogan was in Brussels to attend the NATO summit, accompanied by both Akar and Cavusoglu. During the visit, Turkey also announced that it will receive its first delivery of Russian S-400 missile system by later 2019, a move questioned by the US and some other NATO members.

Despite warm pictures of Erdogan with US President Donald Trump and other Western leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May throughout the summit, it will be too early to say that the NATO summit could lead to a turning point in Turkey's ties with the West.

(The author is former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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