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article imageBinali Yildirim: Erdogan's loyal lieutenant

By Raziye Akkoc (AFP)     Jun 20, 2019 in Politics

Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and loyal lieutenant to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the 1990s, has at times looked like a reluctant challenger for the mayorship of Istanbul.

Far less charismatic than Erdogan, the 63-year-old Yildirim nevertheless cuts a genial figure with his love of homespun phrases.

"I don't speak much but I work like my surname," said Yildirim, whose name means 'lightning' in Turkish.

Born into a poor family in a village in the eastern region of Erzincan, Yildirim became a maritime engineer. When Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he chose him to head the city's ferry company.

Yildirim was a founding member of the AKP in 2001 before the party won its first general election the following year, since when it has never lost an election.

The father-of-three and grandfather served as a member of parliament for Istanbul from 2002 until 2007 before representing Erzincan in the northeast, then Izmir in the west.

Erdogan appointed his old friend to the key post of transport minister where Yildirim spent almost a decade overseeing the ambitious new tunnels, bridges and airports that became a trademark of the strongman's rule.

When Erdogan became president in 2016, he turned to Yildirim to take on the role of prime minister and later speaker of parliament.

Happy to play second fiddle to Erdogan, Yildirim never showed the ambition or desire to overshadow the president that cost the previous prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, his job.

"He always played the role of a loyal servant and a man of mission," said Emre Erdogan, a politics professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. Yildirim had a "sacrificing" personality, he added.

- 'Only one captain' -

When Erdogan pushed through constitutional reforms to give the presidency more powers and remove the role of the prime minister, Yildirim backed him, arguing the changes would help prevent the squabbling and political chaos of the early 1990s.

"I am a seaman," explained Yildirim. "Two captains can sink a ship. There should be only one captain."

There have been rumours around Yildirim and the fortune allegedly amassed during his time in politics. But he insists he has nothing to hide and has vowed to share details of his personal wealth.

Binali Yildirim has always been content to play second fiddle to Erdogan
Binali Yildirim has always been content to play second fiddle to Erdogan

Yet Turkish journalist Pelin Unker was sentenced to jail in January after reporting in the opposition daily Cumhuriyet that Yildirim and his two sons owned offshore companies in Malta.

The sentence was overturned on appeal, but Unker still faces a defamation suit from the family.

Yildirim emphasised his experience as transport minister during a rare television debate on June 16 with his opponent in the Istanbul mayoral race, Ekrem Imamoglu. He would be able to solve Istanbul's transport issues, he argued.

Yet many observers claim he has been a reluctant figure in the mayoral contest -- which was narrowly won by Imamoglu in March only for the election authorities to call a re-run over "irregularities".

The delay in confirming his candidacy for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) led many to speculate that he saw the mayoral job as a step down.

Since the re-run was called for June 23 however, he has been a more visible presence, attending rallies and television shows, and even visiting a major Kurdish city in a bid to reach out to the Kurdish community, which in Istanbul numbers in the millions.

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