Erdogan chairs Turkey cabinet for first time as president

Fulya Ozerkan
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due in Mogadishu on Friday

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due in Mogadishu on Friday (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)

Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday chaired a cabinet meeting for the first time as head of state, in a marathon get-together aimed at cementing his role as Turkey's undisputed number one.

Erdogan, who took over the presidency in August elections after more than a decade as premier, hosted the cabinet at his lavish and hugely controversial presidential palace on the outskirts of Ankara.

The meeting lasted 8.5 hours, including a break for lunch, with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc telling reporters that issues ranging from the economy to the situation in Turkey's restive southeast had been discussed.

He insisted it would not be a "routine" for Erdogan to chair cabinet meetings but said it could happen again.

"If Mr President wants to chair a meeting in the future that decision can be taken," said Arinc, who also acts as top government spokesman.

"Mr President can use his constitutional powers whenever he wants," said Arinc, adding the next meeting would be held as normal at the prime minister's office in a week.

The Turkish president has the right under the constitution to chair cabinet meetings, which are usually overseen by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a close Erdogan ally.

However Erdogan's two predecessors in the presidential job -- Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Abdullah Gul -- performed largely ceremonial roles and never chaired a government meeting.

The last president to do so was Suleyman Demirel, who served as head of state from 1993-2000. Erdogan is just the sixth Turkish president in the history of the modern republic founded in 1923 to chair a cabinet meeting.

The official images of the closed-door meeting showed Erdogan sitting at the head of a vast oval table, facing the ministers. A portrait of modern Turkey's secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk hung above his head.

A photo from the meeting depicting a seemingly annoyed Davutoglu -- looking sidelined at the table with just a jug of orange juice for company -- drew mocking comments on social media.

- 'Dress rehearsal' -

Analysts saw the meeting as a turning point in Turkish politics, symbolising the creation of a powerful presidency.

Commentator Murat Yetkin said previous examples of a president chairing a cabinet meeting followed either an invitation by a prime minister, or major international crises like the gathering called by late president Turgut Ozal for the Gulf war in the 1990s.

"Today is different," he wrote in Hurriyet Daily News, saying Davutoglu had simply accepted that "it would be Erdogan who ruled the country".

Erdogan transformed Turkey in over a decade as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, winning plaudits for speeding up development and growth but also facing accusations of imposing a creeping Islamisation and authoritarianism on the country's secular democracy.

The August elections were the first time a Turkish president, traditionally a ceremonial role, has been directly elected by the people and Erdogan insisted he now has a popular mandate to be an active and powerful leader.

In barely five months in office, Erdogan has totally revamped the role, making clear that the president is Turkey's number one on all the major issues, including foreign policy.

Monday's meeting comes at the start of a key year for Turkey which will in June vote in a legislative election where the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking a big majority to write a new constitution that will enshrine Erdogan's powers as president.

"Erdogan's fait accompli at his new palace is a dress rehearsal of the de-facto presidential system he hopes to impose following the June 2015 elections," said Aykan Erdemir, lawmaker of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

Erdogan's promotion of a strong presidency is symbolised by the vast presidential palace which opened last year and he says is needed as a symbol of a powerful "new Turkey", but which opponents say is another sign of authoritarian excess.

Previously, Turkish presidents worked in the far more modest Cankaya palace in downtown Ankara.

The new palace has 1,150 rooms and was built at a cost of around 490 million euros ($615 million).