Turkey’s ruling party named a loyal ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the new prime minister yesterday (19 May), with the incoming premier immediately vowing to “work in total harmony” with the strongman leader.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will officially appoint Transport Minister Binali Yıldırım as its chairman Sunday, meaning he will automatically become prime minister.
Yıldırım will replace Ahmet Davutoğlu, who stepped down after a struggle with Erdoğan, as the president seeks to concentrate more power in the presidential office.
“We will work in total harmony with all our party comrades at all levels, beginning with our founding president and leader,” said Yıldırım after being named party head, referring to Erdoğan.
The 60-year-old Yıldırım is seen as one of Erdoğan’s closest longtime confidants and has served an almost unbroken stint from 2002 to 2013 as transport minister and then again from 2015.
They are both strongly opposed to resuming talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant group that has claimed responsibility for several attacks across Turkey since a two-year-long ceasefire collapsed in 2015.
The new prime minister’s main task, observers say, will be to pilot a change in the constitution to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, placing more power in Erdoğan’s hands.
“And now it’s time for the presidential system,” Yıldırım said earlier this month, just after Davutoğlu’s resignation.
Erdoğan’s critics have accused him of authoritarian behaviour, pointing to the growing number of investigations pursued against journalists, along with a bid to lift the parliamentary immunity of some deputies, a measure seen as targeting pro-Kurdish MPs and which will be put to a vote in parliament on Friday.
Another critical task facing the new prime minister will be to negotiate with the European Union on a crunch visa deal, a key plank of an accord aimed at easing the EU’s refugee crisis.
The visa deal has been in jeopardy over Ankara’s reluctance to alter its counter-terror laws, a requirement of the agreement, prompting Erdoğan to make a series of critical statements about the EU in recent weeks.
Yıldırım vowed on Thursday to “rid Turkey of the calamity of terrorism” during a symbolic visit to the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in the southeast.
“We will do what it takes to achieve it,” he said, pledging to return to the city with Erdoğan on 28 May.
The new prime minister is a relative newcomer to foreign politics, and his first high profile outing will be the opening of the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on Monday (23 May), attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Analysts expect that Yıldırım – who has never stepped out of line with the president on a policy issue – will prove a far more pliable figure for the president than Davutoğlu.
After the official appointment expected on Sunday (22 May), “the post of prime minister will have changed its meaning”, said Fuat Keyman, head of the Istanbul Policy Center think tank.
“The president will become the head of the executive. The prime minister will become a functional cog,” Keyman told AFP.
‘Not one millimetre’
After the announcement of a single candidate, Yıldırım will likely be approved as new AKP leader by an extraordinary congress of the party on Sunday.
According to AKP convention, the posts of party chief and head of government automatically go to the same figure.
Erdoğan will then give the new AKP leader the mandate to serve as prime minister early next week, after which a new cabinet will be announced.
As a ferry company chief and then as transport minister, Yıldırım has for the last two decades worked in the transport sector, an area in Turkey which is trying to catch up its lag in infrastructure with vast new projects.
Yıldırım and Erdoğan have been close allies since Erdoğan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
According to the columnist for the Hurriyet daily Abdulkadir Selvi, the only serious difference between the two men is that Erdoğan supports the Fenerbahce football side and Yıldırım their arch Istanbul rivals Galatasaray.
Despite Davutoğlu’s shock announcement earlier this month that he was stepping down, the AKP has been keen to promote an image of unity in public.
“There’s not one millimetre of difference between the AKP faithful and the president,” said party spokesman Omer Celik.
Davutoğlu, who met Erdoğan on Thursday to discuss the transition, phoned his successor to congratulate him, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
However financial markets have not appreciated the political uncertainty, with the Turkish lira losing five percent in value against the US dollar over the last month.