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New Turkish Prime Minister Pledges Sweeping Reforms

Abdullah Gul, a staunch advocate of Turkey’s bid for EU membership, close U.S . ties and a favorite of financial markets was appointed Turkey’s Prime Minister, ending days of speculation.


Turkey's strong men - new Prime Minister Abdullah Gul (left) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In a move that is bound to please NATO allies and financial markets, Abdullah Gul, a 52-year-old trained economist and a foreign policy expert, was installed as Turkey’s Prime Minister on Saturday.

The appointment ends weeks of speculation following the landslide victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Tayyip Erdogan two weeks ago. The charismatic Mr Erdogan himself was unable to contest the polls on account of a 1998 conviction for inciting religious hatred and is barred from the post.

Gul right man for the job?

Abdullah Gul, a close confidant of Erdogan and deputy leader of the conservative Islamic AKP party was handpicked personally by Erdogan to head Turkey. He takes over the reins of a country, whose ailing economy and ambitions to join the European Union needs a strong pro-reform and pro-west leader at the helm.

The AKP which has consistently announced sweeping plans for economic and social reforms to meet EU standards ever since its whopping win, is convinced that Gul is the right man for the job.

"It’s time to start work. From this hour onward it’s time to mobilize and work night and day to solve the problems of our people," a smiling Gul said after President Ahmet Necdet Sezer invited him to form a government. "The government will be ready by Monday," he said.

All the right credentials

Abdullah Gul, who speaks fluent English, is a familiar face to the United States, which may look to him for use of Turkey’s air bases in the event of an attack on neighboring Iraq. Financial markets are also counting on Gul to wisely deal with a $ 16 billion IMF crisis pact to pull itself out of one of the worst economic slump since 1945.

Gul was a member of Turkey’s first Islamist-led government, which was forced from power after a year in 1997 by an army-led pressure campaign. But Gul himself is known for his balanced demeanor and has never had a run-in with courts.

The AKP, which presents itself as pro-Western and pro-market evolved from the wing of a now banned Islamist party. Aware of the suspicions his party faces, Gul said in a recent interview, "We are rational people first and foremost. We are not militant Islamists."

Erdogan unveils sweeeping reforms

But despite Gul being a strong figure in his own right, analysts fear that he might be overshadowed by the more charismatic Erdogan and be little more than a caretaker.

Erdogan himself has flaunted his pro-western ambitions to the world and has made no bones of his leading role by announcing a program of social and economic reform at a news conference held as Gul visited the Presidential palace.

"We are building a new world and this new world will bring the East and West together in Turkey," Erdogan said.

Erdogan’s new program includes "immediate" new penalties to deter torture, a long-standing sore point that has marred Turkey’s relations with the EU. He has also announced plans to reform Turkey’s education system, a move which will be followed closely by Turkey’s secular establishment to ensure that the country’s secular principles are not diluted.

Erdogan has also pledged to give priority to privatization, tax reforms and a shake-up of a crumbling social security system and the energy sector.

Turkey's EU membership high on AKP agenda

But for now it’s Turkey’s entry into the European Union that is high up on the agenda of the AKP. Next week Erdogan begins a whirlwind tour of nine European Union countries to promote his country’s bid to become a member.

But it remains to be seen whether the EU will agree to set a date to open membership talks with Turkey until reforms have been clearly implemented.

Pierre Lellouche, head of the French delegation at a NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Istanbul told Reuters that the West faced an onslaught by Muslim extremists and needed to "help modern Muslim countries to develop a modern tolerant form of Islam."

"If we eliminate this hope in the one Muslim nation that has a history of secularism (Turkey) then we’ll fabricate ourselves an anti-western Islam in this country ... This is an unwise policy," he said.