Erdogan chairs symbolic first meeting of Turkey cabinet
ANKARA - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday personally chaired the first meeting of the new Turkish cabinet, in a symbolic move showing his desire to exercise full control over the government and consolidate his own powers.
The meeting at the president's huge palace in Ankara came a day after incoming Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, an Erdogan loyalist, disclosed his new cabinet line-up with most key ministers keeping their jobs.
The Turkish constitution allows heads of state to chair the cabinet but this right was exercised extremely rarely by Erdogan's predecessors before he was elected president in August 2014.
A presidential statement announced the start of the first meeting of Turkey's 65th government, with images showing the ministers sitting at a vast table chaired by Erdogan and overlooked by a portrait of the modern Republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
A technocrat and former transport minister, Yildirim is seen as a more pliant figure for Erdogan compared to outgoing premier Ahmet Davutoglu who stepped down after power struggle with the president.
Erdogan wants one of the priorities of the government to be implementing constitutional changes to create a presidential system that would enshrine his status as the Turkish number one.
Yildirim, 60, has also made no secret of his enthusiasm for a system change in Turkey that would restrict the powers of the prime minister and bolster the presidency.
Erdogan chaired several cabinet meetings during Davutoglu's premiership. But Turkish media reported that they will now be held at the presidential palace at least once a month.
- 'EU not only choice' -
Opposition parties have vehemently criticised Erdogan's aspirations for greater powers, with the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) leader repeatedly warning that the move risked bloodshed.
"(Erdogan) says he will do everything. I said if you want to create such a system, you cannot do it without bloodshed," CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told the private NTV television.
Explaining his comment he said: "We will take to streets (in protest) and you will try to kill us with your TOMA (water cannon trucks). What business do I have in politics if I cannot leave a better Turkey for children?"
One of the key changes in the new cabinet was diplomat-turned politician Volkan Bozkir's replacement by ruling party spokesman Omer Celik, an Erdogan loyalist, as EU affairs minister.
Bozkir was a broker with Davutoglu of a controversial migrant deal with the European Union aimed at curbing the flow of refugees to Europe, an accord said to have sidelined Erdogan.
In his first remarks after taking over the job from Bozkir, Celik called for an equal relationship with Brussels.
"An EU perspective is important for Turkey but it is not the only choice," he said at the EU ministry.
- MHP goes to congress -
The migrant deal comes in return for a series of incentives for Ankara, including visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the passport-free Schengen area.
But Turks are unlikely to enjoy visa exemption by the target date of the end of June because Turkey is obliged to comply with 72 criteria, including changes to its counter-terror laws.
Ankara refuses to make any such changes while its army is in the throes of battling Kurdish militants in the southeast.
Erdogan had startled observers on Tuesday by saying the Turkish parliament would throw out legislation on the migrant deal if Turks do not receive the visa-free travel.
Celik said Turkey would not accept any "double standards" in the fight against terrorism.
One factor of uncertainty for Erdogan is the situation in the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which also opposes the presidential system but whose leader Devlet Bahceli is facing a revolt by party dissidents.
Bahceli said Wednesday that the party would hold an extraordinary congress on July 10 where his leadership -- which dates back to 1997 -- could be challenged.
A change of leadership in the party headed by the 68-year-old Bahceli could attract more votes and undermine Erdogan's plans for greater powers.