Originally published under the title "Turkish Sultan's New Grand Vizier: What Is His Main Goal?"
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the choice of Turkish President and would-be Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan for loyal servant in 2014, stepped down with words that were bitter but not resentful: he will always remain loyal to the sultan, party and "dawa" – the Islamist political cause.
After having been chosen by the Sultan as his first Grand Vizier, not knowing he would have to quit barely 20 months later, Davutoglu read out his government's program in parliament on Sept. 1, 2014:
One of the most important prerequisites to sustainable stability in the Middle East is to find a just, comprehensive and viable solution to the Palestinian dispute.... Turkey's efforts for an end to the human tragedy in Palestine, achievement of sustainable peace in the region and support for the unity government in Palestine will continue on.... Any progress in the process of normalization of ties with Israel, which began after Israel apologized in 2013 for the Mavi Marmara attack, will not be possible unless Israel stopped its military strikes on Gaza and removed restrictions [on Gaza].
As is almost always the case in Turkish political Islam's inner roads of intrigue and power struggles, Davutoglu's fierce pro-Palestinian, anti-Semitic, pro-ummah, neo-Ottomanist dreams failed to keep him afloat in a sea of sharks: his own comrades. On May 5 he announced his decision to take the party leadership to an extraordinary general convention where "he would not run for party chairman and prime minister."
On May 19, the party leadership announced the sole candidate to run for party chairman and prime minister: Binali Yildirim, Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication, and Erdogan's closest political ally.
Why did Davutoglu have to go? One former party bigwig has an explanation: "The president [Erdogan] demands 100% allegiance. 99% allegiance will not suffice," said Ahmet Sever, chief advisor to Abdullah Gul, the former President of Turkey. Gul another of Erdogan's most-trusted allies who now enjoys the days of early retirement as he, too, turned out to be "disposable."
So, it once was Erdogan, Gul & Co. It was reflagged as Erdogan, Davutoglu & Co. Now it is Erdogan, Yildirim & Co. What, if anything, will change?
Davutoglu was a dreamer of a future that would blend neo-Ottomanism with pan-Islamism. Despite outstanding failures in a span of seven years (when he joined Erdogan's cabinet as foreign minister), he still -- perhaps childishly -- believed that the overthrown dictatorships in the formerly Ottoman Muslim lands would one day be replaced by Sunni Islamist regimes, thus creating a regional "Muslim Brotherhood belt" under Turkey's leadership. He believed that he and his Islamist comrades would one day pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque in the "Palestinian capital al-Quds [Jerusalem]." He believed that Turkey's regional clout was strong enough to oust Syria's non-Sunni president, Bashar al-Assad, and replace him with a pro-Sunni, Islamist leader.
Although he comes from the similar, pattern-like ideological background, the new Turkish prime minister does not feature any of these banner-like Islamist ideals. That, however, does not make him different from any other Turkish Islamist. Yildirim once confessed, shocking millions of secular Turks:
I first enrolled there [an Istanbul university]. Then I saw that girl and boy students were mixing up ... sitting at the campus benches together. I feared I could go off the [devout] way and I decided to enroll at another university.
Yildirim did enroll at another university, studied shipbuilding there, did his postgraduate studies in Malmö, Sweden, and became the head of Istanbul's ship company when Erdogan was the city's mayor. After Erdogan became the prime minister, he appointed Yildirim as his transport minister. When Erdogan was elected president in 2014 and Yildirim finished his term as transport minister, Erdogan took him, as his chief advisor, to his 1,100-room palace: Yildirim was now running an unofficial cabinet parallel to that of Davutoglu, and masterminding Turkey's "mega projects," a term referring to multi-billion dollar infrastructure programs in Yildirim's portfolio. The pro-Erdogan media refers to Yildirim as the "projects man."
Ahmet Davutoglu (left) was a typically Islamist prime minister, but even his secular rivals admitted that he was an honest man, not corrupt at all. Binali Yildirim (right) has a different reputation.
Davutoglu was a typically Islamist prime minister, except that even his secular rivals admitted that he was an honest man -- not corrupt at all. In contrast, Yildirim has a different story to tell. His son, Erkan Yildirim, was recently photographed playing roulette at a super-posh Singapore casino. That does not indicate any illegal dealing although, in theory, it should have irked the typical devout Muslim Turkish voters who go for Erdogan's [and now Yildirim's] Justice and Development Party (AKP). It did not. But there are suspicions about how the Yildirim family has run its business arm.
Erkan Yildirim launched his shipping company, Derin Gemicilik, in 2002, the year when Erdogan's AKP first came to power. He purchased his first ship only months after, in 2003. Today the Yildirim family allegedly owns 17 companies, 28 ships and two super-yachts. In response to a parliamentary motion years ago, Yildirim admitted that his children "owned ships" but refused to reveal "how many ships they owned."
Yildirim's #1 task will be to introduce the executive presidential system his boss so passionately craves.
If Davutoglu was just 99% loyal to Erdogan, Yildirim will try to be more than 100% loyal. The new prime minister will not pursue his own foreign policy goals as his predecessor did. He will leave foreign policy to Erdogan and his inner cabinet exclusively. He will devote most of his time to infrastructure projects and to political intriguing, so that he achieves his number one task: putting together a parliamentary majority, either by horse-trading or by snap polls, in order to introduce the executive presidential system his boss so passionately craves. Davutoglu, too, defended the presidential system, but apparently not "passionately enough."
In practice, the office of the Turkish prime minister, the most important seat in the Turkish state system, will soon turn into a de facto party commissar's office -- 100%, not 99%, controlled by Erdogan.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.