Binali Yildirim

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Senior Policy Advisor to the President

Notable Quotes

“The embargo (on Gaza) is being lifted under Turkey’s leadership. To this end, our first ship loaded with over 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid will leave for Israel’s Ashdod port on Friday” (6-28-16)

“Our most important foreign-policy goal is to increase the number of friends. There is no reason for us to quarrel with Iraq, Syria, Egypt; with the countries of this region.”

"An incident (the shooting down by Turkey of a Russian plane on 11-24-15 that Turkey claimed violated its airspace) happened with Russia. We of course won’t allow the violation of our right to sovereignty. However, it’s not right to stick to a single incident. We need to look at the bigger picture. There is no animosity between our peoples. It’s possible to return to the old days and even take it further."


Early Years and Education

You were born in 1955 in the city of Refahiye in northeast Turkey. Your undergraduate and master’s degrees in Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering come from İstanbul Technical University's School of Maritime, and you did post-graduate studies in the same fields at the World Maritime University in Sweden, an institution affiliated with the United Nations. You worked for many years with the General Directorate of the Turkish Shipping Industry, but your political career effectively began in 1994, when you took over as the head of the İDO Istanbul Fast Ferries Company, which oversaw the operation of the many car and passenger ferries that the government operates in and around Istanbul. It happened that the mayor of Istanbul at that time was a man named Tayyip Erdogan, someone who would become your patron and political mentor.

Public Life

When Erdogan moved to start the Justice and Development (AKP) Party in 2001, a party that aspired to be both Islamist and democratic, you left your position with the IDO and joined him, winning election to parliament in 2002 for the first of three terms. You served as Erdogan’s Minister of Transport for five years and later served two terms in the newly-created position of Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication, starting in 2011. You made your biggest public splash when the fact that the Communications portfolio was added to your portfolio put you in the position of heading a controversial and steadily growing program of government censorship. Turkey’s government is seen by many as being extraordinarily sensitive to criticism, coming down hard on public expression of all kinds thought to be “inappropriate for Turkish families.” In response to the frequent criticism of Turkey’s harsh civil rights policies, you were quoted as saying that, “(i)f you are not up to anything illegal, don't worry about surveillance.” It should be noted that Turkey’s restrictive policies on free expression have been consistently cited by the European Union as being a primary area in which Turkish policy will need to change, if Turkey ever wants to qualify for EU membership.

In the eyes of Mr. Erdogan and AKP Party leadership, you developed a reputation over these years as a “can do” person, and you were seen as the prime mover behind both the rapid development of Turkey’s high-speed rail system, and the expansion of Turkey’s network of highways.

How You Became Prime Minister

You were made the official head of the AKP Party in May 2016, and given that your party was in control of the parliament and led the governing coalition, this move automatically made you the Prime Minister. Had this happened a few years earlier, this ascension would have made you the effective head of state, but much has happened of late that make it clear to all that your becoming Prime Minister is likely to shepherd in an era when the job of being Prime Minister becomes a far less powerful position. Let us explain…. Turkey’s political system has both a President and a Prime Minister, but since the constitutional revision of 1960-61, the President’s role has been largely ceremonial, while the prime minister was the true head of state. This division of power reflected a parliamentary system, in which the head of the governing party or coalition became prime minister. Technically, the President had the power to rule by decree, but as a practical matter, no President attempted to exercise this power (which was regarded as a kind of fail safe for Turkey’s historically strong military, allowing it an avenue within the political system to take control, should it feel the need to do so). However, when your friend and political patron Tayyip Erdogan ended his 11-year tenure as Prime Minister in 2014, he already had his eye on a refashioning of the Turkish system that would feature a strong President, who would be (in his vision) a true head of state, and not just head of the governing party. This initiative, not surprisingly, coincided with Erodgan’s election as President in 2014.

Although your predecessor as Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was certainly a strong supporter of Mr. Erdogan, he was regarded by Erdogan as being a little too independent, and perhaps not sufficiently bought in to the idea of overseeing the reduction in power of his own position, and of shifting from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. Fully leveraging his political power, Mr. Erdogan was finally able to push Davutoglu aside in May 2016, and engineer your selection as Prime Minister. It is said that many in your party would like to see the state headed by a strong leader with robust Islamist credentials, and no one subscribes more strongly to this idea than the man seen by many to fit the description perfectly, Mr. Erdogan. Indeed, it is something of an open secret that, since he was elected president, Erdogan has been largely ignoring the law that says that the president must break ties with any political parties, and serve as a “impartial” head of state.

Issues of Concern

To put it plainly, Turkey’s regional relationships are in flux. Relations have improved with Russia, as Turkey has clearly accepted the fact that Assad government will remain in power. Your interest is centered in the one remaining battleground in Syria, in the northwestern region of Idlib. As the Astana peace process (in which Turkey has been working with Russia, Syria and Iran, to the exclusion of the US) got rolling in 2017, thousands of rebels and Syrian refugees were moved to the so-called de-escalation zone in Idlib, with the Turkish army charged with keeping government and rebel forces apart (and where a combination of rebel forces, Kurdish fighters and your army rendered the region the biggest challenge for Assad’s forces to bring under their control). As of this writing in Fall 2018, however, Idlib is now the last major military objective for Assad’s armies, and with Turkish forces still very present in the region, the question is whether Syria and Russia will bomb the region as aggressively as they have everywhere else. You don’t want to have to deal with another flood of refugees from full-scale bombing, and you not only want to keep a strong foothold in the region but you want to be sure that Kurdish forces don’t gain militarily. You will need to use your diplomatic skill to keep Syria and Russia from the kind of brutal, all-out attacks they have carried out elsewhere. Finally, note that relations between Turkey and Israel are steadily improving, as Israel sees Iran as THE geopolitical threat in the region, while Turkey sees Iran as a strategic rival. Turkey, which had been diplomatically isolated in the region, is now seeing somewhat brighter prospects in the offing, and you will look to help President Erdogan to seize the moment.

Of course you will be a key actor in any future negotiations related to Turkey’s potential membership in the European Union, an enterprise which has had a tempestuous history, as well as the future of the agreement that Turkey reached with the EU on Syrian refugees, one in which Turks would potentially be allowed visa-free travel within the EU in exchange for Turkey agreeing to clamp down on the smuggling of refugees, and to take in refugees whose applications for asylum in Greece are rejected. This visa-free travel agreement is contingent on changes in Turkey’s civil rights policies, however, changes that the Erdogan government has resisted making.

Relations with the United States have been bad throughout 2018, and you will need to help Mr. Erdogan to gain whatever political strength he can gain from talking tough with the US, while making sure that the core of their economic and strategic relationship is not damaged. Turkey has been very concerned about US reliance on Kurdish fighters in the battle against ISIS, fearing that the US is forming a strong relationship with the Kurdish people who Turkey sees as a fundamental threat. Turkey worries that any recognition of Kurdish aspirations for independence will result in demands being made for lands now part of Turkey to become part of a Kurdish state. In addition to tensions regarding American support for the Kurds, Turkey’s closer relations with Russia have threatened the Turkish-American relationship. In 2018, for example, Turkey announced that it would be purchasing surface-to-air missiles from Russia while it was in the midst of purchasing F-35 fighter jets from the US. As a result, the American arms sale was halted by the Congress, and together with American moves to increase tariffs on Turkish steel, relations between the two nations are very tense. Will you be a voice beseeching Mr. Erdogan to proceed cautiously, or will you choose to support Mr. Erdogan’s more antagonistic tendencies as he matches rhetorical strikes with President Trump?

Role Playing Notes

You are regarded as a technocrat who, as mentioned previously, has a reputation for getting things done. By technocrat, we mean that (as an engineer) you possess significant technical and managerial expertise, and that your approach was guided more by a problem-solving orientation than by your political affiliations or ambitions. In contrast with Mr. Erdogan, you are thought to be remarkably free of ego; for you it is more about the work than it is about you. You are not a shrinking violet, and you will be strong and visible in support of the policies of your party and, most importantly, of President Erdogan. You have not only benefitted professionally from your association with Tayyip Erdogan, but personally as well, as you are a very wealthy man who owns several ships and shipping companies. It must also be added that you have been accused of financial improprieties, including trading influence for financial donations to the AKP, but you’ve not been convicted of breaking any laws. Speaking of economic matters, you will be engaged in helping President Erdogan advocate with Russia to get Turkey a share of the massive reconstruction work that will be required in Syria.

Upon taking your position as Prime Minister, you were quoted as follows:

“Our way is that of the people’s voice and breath, our party’s leader Tayyip Erdogan’s way. My honorable president, we swear that your passion is our passion, your cause is our cause, your path is our path.”

These words were tested when, in June 2018, an election was held at Erdogan’s initiative to dramatically strengthen the office of the presidency. The proposal, which was approved by the voters, curtailed the powers of parliament, gave the president wide-ranging executive authority, and abolished the office of prime minister, putting you out of a job. You bounced back strongly, being installed as the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, as well as remaining a key advisor to the president although, as you know better than anyone, Mr. Erdogan tends to take counsel mostly from himself.


References

Candar, C. (2016, June 10). New Turkish PM helps Erdogan revive 'Ottoman glory' Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/05/turkey-new-prime-minister-binali-yildirim-erdogan.html

Malsin, J. (2016, May 5). Why Turkey's Prime Minister Had No Choice But to Resign. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://time.com/4320036/turkey-prime-minister-ahmet-davutoglu-resign/

Mardasov, A. (August 2018). Idlib takes center stage at Sochi Syria talks. Retrieved August 8, 2018 from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/russia-sochi-astana-talks-idlib.html?utm_campaign=20180806&utm_source=sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily%20Newsletter

Ozer, V. (2016, June 10). Hürriyet Daily News |. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/why-are-turkey-and-israel-reconciling-now.aspx?pageID=449

Özkizilcik, O. (2018). Russia, Turkey, and the Fate of Idlib. Retrieved August 8, 2018 from http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/76999?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTXpZNVptSXpNVGcyWXpCaSIsInQiOiJ5bWs1bHNtS3Bsa0ZNK1FhS2hkTUFIcUVDR2tmRHRzMlU3N2pIUEE2d3Z0TUEyNVpEQWtSeDdBTTU2SjlEOWRkc2VpWDY3cGFcLzJ5UUtxTFdKNGtKS3F0Tmx2NTVtS1FoUHZPY3pPM1NmdHAwd2JnTmRjdlQzcjBNWmFSaTQ1aXAifQ%3D%3D

Peker, E. (2016, May 24). Turkey's New Premier Charts Mission With Cabinet Shuffle. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/turkeys-new-prime-minister-signals-intent-with-cabinet-reshuffle-1464091857

5 things you need to know about new Turkish PM Yildirim. (2016, June 10). Retrieved June 14, 2016, from https://www.rt.com/news/344043-erdogan-yildirim-davutoglu-shift/

Scharfe, P. (2015, February). Erdoğan's Presidential Dreams, Turkey's Constitutional Politics | Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://origins.osu.edu/article/erdo-s-presidential-dreams-turkey-s-constitutional-politics

Putin man in the middle between Assad, Erdogan over Idlib (2018). Retrieved August 8, 2018 from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/putin-man-middle-assad-erdogan-syria-idlib.html

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