Turkey’s new prime minister will be everything that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could want – loyal, quiet and compliant. Binali Yildirim’s name means ‘thunderbolt’ in Turkish, but it’s clear that any thunderbolts he hurls from Turkey will be handed to him from above. Global Sources Magazine special correspondent Gareth Jenkins plots the rise of Yildirim and ponders what the country and the European Union can expect next.
ON 22 May 2016, at an extraordinary congress of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim was elected unopposed as party leader and was immediately asked by President Tayyip Erdogan to form a new government. Yildirim’s appointment comes two weeks after Erdogan loyalists manoeuvred his predecessor, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, out of power, accusing him of the heinous crime of acting independently of a president whose role is constitutionally supposed to be ceremonial. Yildirim, an unquestioning Erdogan lackey, has already begun working with the president to choose a new cabinet and draw up a government program to be submitted to parliament for a vote of confidence by mid-June.
The AKP currently controls 316 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament, which means that both the vote of confidence and Yildirim’s confirmation as prime minister will be formalities. There is less certainty about the composition of the new cabinet, although Erdogan is expected to ensure that it is dominated by ministers who will report to, and be prepared to receive instructions from, the presidential palace. In theory, Turkey will remain a parliamentary democracy governed by the rule of law. In practice, Yildirim’s appointment will accelerate Turkey’s slide into authoritarian one-man rule.
In August 2014, when he was elected to the theoretically figurehead presidency, Erdogan picked Davutoglu to succeed him as prime minister. Erdogan had been impressed by Davutoglu’s rhetorical skills during the March 2014 local election campaign, but he was aware that Davutoglu lacked a strong personal following, unlike Erdogan’s own devoted hard-core supporters. So Erdogan was confident he could continue to shape government policy even after he became president and while he was laying the foundations for the formal adoption of an autocratic presidential system in Turkey.
Despite the constitutional stipulation that the president remain equidistant from all political parties, Erdogan headed the AKP’s campaign for the 7 June 2015 general election, and repeatedly called for the introduction of a presidential system. As a result, the AKP won only 40.1 per cent of the vote and failed to secure a parliamentary majority for the first time since November 2002. When a fresh election was called for 1 November 2015, it was Davutoglu rather than Erdogan who led the AKP campaign – and the party regained its parliamentary majority, taking 49.5 per cent of the vote.
Emboldened by what he regarded as his success, Davutoglu gradually began to distance himself from Erdogan, mostly by refraining from enthusiastically supporting the president, but not publicly contradicting him. However, during the negotiations with the EU over the Syrian refugees in March and early April this year, Davutoglu also started making key policy decisions without consulting first with Erdogan. He was helped by EU officials, who naively believed that engaging with Davutoglu would help to strengthen him as a counterweight to the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan. In actuality, it merely hastened Davutoglu’s political demise. Alarmed by Davutoglu’s apparent willingness to act independently, Erdogan’s loyalists in the AKP first forced Davutoglu to relinquish control of the party apparatus and then launched a smear campaign against him. On 5 May 2016, Davutoglu announced he was stepping down.
Yildirim is a tediously uninspiring public speaker with no personal support base of his own and is unlikely ever to challenge Erdogan. Born in 1955, Yildirim first became acquainted with Erdogan in the 1980s when they both worshipped at the same mosque in Istanbul. After Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul in March 1994, he appointed Yildirim, a marine engineer by training, to oversee the high-speed catamarans that ferry commuters between the two shores of the Bosphorus. When Erdogan entered national politics, Yildirim followed and in 2001 became a founding member of the AKP. In November 2002, he was elected to parliament for the first time and was immediately appointed transport minister. Yildirim remained minister until December 2013, when he was forced to resign after being implicated in a corruption scandal involving members of Erdogan’s inner circle. Erdogan intervened to ensure that the allegations never went to court and, in November 2015, Yildirim was once again made transport minister.
Now his appointment as prime minister will not only increase Erdogan’s control over policy but it also threatens political and economic stability. Erdogan has long lobbied for lower interest rates, and this could further slash confidence in the already highly vulnerable Turkish lira. On the political front Erdogan has vowed to continue the hard-line policies against rebel Kurds, even though this appears to be strengthening rather than weakening the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The war has resulted in more than 2,000 deaths and the internal displacement of more than 500,000 ethnic Kurds since July 2015.
There is growing public resentment at Erdogan’s increasing suppression of freedom of speech and the complete collapse of confidence in the impartiality of the justice system. In the months ahead, Erdogan may find it much easier to control the government than to control the country.
As for Turkey’s foreign relations, the change in the AKP leadership can probably claim its first casualty – the Syrian refugee deal with the EU. Erdogan has publicly declared that he will not fulfill all of the conditions Davutoglu agreed to so the agreement could be implemented. Equally critically, Yildirim’s appointment effectively removes any buffer between the EU and Erdogan.
Given the deep distaste with which Erdogan is now regarded, any engagement with Turkey is likely to be reduced to a minimum. There will be considerable EU resistance in agreeing to anything that could rewarding Erdogan for his unravelling of Turkey’s fragile democracy. This will make it extremely difficult to reach a new agreement on the refugee issue and will ultimately intensify Turkey’s deepening international isolation.