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Binali Yildirim: Turkey’s last prime minister?

Updated February 17, 2017
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is an impassioned champion of a draft constitution which if approved in a referendum will see the post of prime minister done away with.—AFP
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is an impassioned champion of a draft constitution which if approved in a referendum will see the post of prime minister done away with.—AFP

ISTANBUL: Campaigning with gusto for a “Yes” vote in Turkey’s referendum on a new constitution, it may seem surprising Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is an impassioned champion of the plan to expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Since if the new blueprint is approved, Yildirim’s own job will be axed.

Under the draft constitution approved by parliament and set to be put to the people on April 16, the post of prime minister will be extinguished for the first time and replaced by one or more vice presidents.

Erdogan said in a speech on Feb 8 the offices of prime minister and president will be merged, creating a single powerful executive bureaucracy under the head of state.

“The people will know who to vote for, who to expect action from, who to bring to account. This person is now the president,” he said.

The abolition of an office that has existed not just since modern Turkey’s foundation in 1923 but also throughout the Ottoman Empire is one of the most radical steps in the new constitution.

Yildirim argues that that changes will prevent situations like the squabbling between president Turgut Ozal and premier Suleyman Demirel that marked the political chaos of the early 1990s.

“I am a seaman,” explained Yildirim, a former maritime engineer and director of Istanbul’s ferry company. “Two captains can sink a ship. There should be only one captain,” he said.

‘No checks and balances’

Asli Aydintasbas, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said the abolition of the prime minister’s office would not matter if the system was complemented by a powerful judiciary and parliament.

But she told AFP this is not the case: “The forces that are supposed to balance each other out are all combined in the hands of the president.” “I don’t mind that the prime ministry is abolished,” she said. “What I mind is that the presidency will not have the checks and balances it is supposed to have in a democracy.”

The post of prime minister goes back to the 14th century with the post of Ottoman grand vizier (sadrazam) who was equivalent to prime minister and on occasion even more powerful than the sultan himself.

The position of top minister remained in place for six centuries until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. When modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Ataturk became its first president, he made war hero Ismet Inonu his prime minister.

For decades, the post of prime minister was the number one position.

Erdogan himself became Turkey’s undisputed leader as prime minister from 2003-2014.

The president has some powers under the existing constitution — drawn up after the 1980 military coup — but it became traditional not to exercise them.

Erdogan’s predecessor Abdullah Gul was dubbed by critics “the notary” for his rubber stamping of legislation.

The election of Erdogan as president in 2014, the first popular vote for head of state, changed everything and he immediately stood traditions on their head.

His first prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was jettisoned in 2016 after the former foreign minister’s moves to build his own power base and policy disputes proved too much.

But Erdogan said it was “lies, lies” to suggest that the changes would result in one man rule, arbitrary justice and a weak parliament.

‘Drastic changes’

Yildirim, 61, always espoused his loyalty to Erdogan, who he served for years as transport minister, overseeing the implementation of the mega-projects the leader has made his trademark.

Born into poor family in the eastern city of Erzincan, Yildirim was educated at the maritime faculty of Istanbul’s technical university before working in the shipping directorate and managing Istanbul ferries while Erdogan was mayor.

While rumours of closed door disputes surface, Yildirim in public always portrays himself as a devoted servant happy to fall on his sword for the sake of the presidential system.

If agreed, the new constitution and abolition of prime minister’s office would come into force after November 2019 elections.

There are parallels with Iran’s 1989 abolition of the post of prime minister, which forced then premier Mir Hossein Mousavi out of the hierarchy in the Islamic Republic. He would later lead the 2009 anti-government protests.

But it is likely that Yildirim will become one of likely two vice presidents, with the other possibly Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“The referendum is the last ditch before Turkey formally adopts a one-man-rule system,” said Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “If approved, the new constitution would introduce drastic changes to the country’s governance.”—AFP

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2017