ISTANBUL–Turkey’s new prime minister-designate, Binali Yildirim, has won a one-horse race for the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party, taking 1205 votes – all those that were validly cast – at a special party congress to elect a new leader.
Yildirim, a white-haired grandfatherly figure, was nominated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after he forced his predecessor Ahmet Davutoğlu, to step down after 21 months in office. Davutoğlu seems to have been regarded as too independent of the president, though he bowed to the inevitable and has said he will remain a loyal member of the AKP.
At Sunday’s congress, Yildirim made it clear that he will not allow any distance to separate him from the president and that his top priority will be the introduction of a presidential executive constitution formalizing the concentration of power in Erdoğan’s hands. “This convention proved how important it is to be loyal to the leader,” Yildirim declared.
Erdogan’s growing power
Erdoğan’s growing supremacy as the country’s national leader has been enhanced by a number of other events over the last two weeks. Just two days before the party congress, the AKP finessed a vote in the National Assembly enabling parliamentary immunity to be lifted for 198 of its 550 members, making them eligible for prosecution, imprisonment, and loss of their membership. Though the constitutional amendment names some deputies from all four parties as possible candidates for prosecution, its weight falls particularly heavily on the Kurdish-backed Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), more than three quarters of whose parliamentarians now face serious charges against them.
The amendment was condemned by both the United States and the European Union. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesperson, said it would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech in Turkey and would “erode the quality of democracy.” Federica Mogherini, EU High Commissioner for External Affairs, said that the Union was “seriously concerned.” If –as looks more or less inevitable—the Turkish authorities now proceed with prosecution and imprisonment of Kurdish and other opposition MPs on charges of terrorism which appear internationally unconvincing, diplomat reaction, especially from Washington, is likely to become much stronger.
Opening the way to prosecuting opposition MPs has also helped create an atmosphere of unanimity among EU leaders opposed to allowing Turkey easy terms for visa liberalization. Turkey has fulfilled nearly all the 72 conditions set by the Union in order to allow its citizens to travel without visas in the Schengen area, but the EU insists that it bring its laws on terrorism, currently much more restrictive than those in EU countries, into line with its practice. President Erdoğan says that Turkey will not do this and will go its own way.
That has made the task of wanting to speed up visa liberalization almost impossible and EU officials now say that any chance of introducing it in June is over and that at best it can only be introduced in the autumn. Faced by the growing consensus against giving way to Turkey inside the EU, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has bowed to her critics and promised to raise her anxieties at what she calls “the growing polarization” inside Turkey with the Turkish authorities during her latest visit to the country on May 23.
In fact the situation inside Turkey is more easily described as “monolithic” than “polarised” with almost all alternative sources of political power being brushed aside or removed. In mid-May, the government halted a university event at which Bülent Arınç, a fellow Islamist politician and co-founder of the AKP but a long established critic of Erdoğan was due to speak.
In the Nationalist Action Party, a right-wing grouping which is the main rival for the AKP in conservative provinces, opposition politicians are unable to hold a conference at which they would almost certainly unseat their existing leader, Devlet Bahçeli, and so mount a strong electoral challenge to the AKP.
Though the dissidents seem in a clear majority, court rulings, two of them from courts in small provincial towns, have prevented them holding a congress due on May 15. For whatever reason, Turkey’s main court of appeal has been strikingly slow to issue a ruling and on May 15, when nearly 1000 delegates gathered for the convention, they were held back by police, anti-personnel vehicles, and barbed wire. Bahçeli, now a fairly open ally of the AKP, remains in charge. “The AKP can hold a party congress and change its leaders, but in the MHP we can’t,” one party member said.
Binali Yildirim has so far shown little of the cut and thrust abilities usually expected of a head of government, but in a political landscape where the opposition is weakened or even partially eliminated, he may not need them.