By Humeyra Pamuk and Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's Transport Minister Binali Yildirim emerged on Thursday as the likely new leader of the ruling AK Party and therefore the next prime minister, cementing President Tayyip Erdogan's hold on government as he seeks to extend his powers.
Yildirim, 60, and a close ally of Erdogan for two decades, will be the sole candidate for the AKP leadership at a special party congress on Sunday, AKP spokesman Omer Celik told a news conference after a meeting of the party's executive board.
A co-founder with Erdogan of the AKP, Yildirim has been the driving force behind major infrastructure projects in Turkey which were one of the pillars of the party's electoral successes during its first decade in power.
He is seen as likely to champion Erdogan's aim of changing the constitution to create a presidential system, a move opponents say will bring growing authoritarianism, and to support the president's determination to crush by force an insurgency by militants in the largely Kurdish southeast.
"We will make every effort by working in full harmony primarily with our founding chairman and leader and then our colleagues within all ranks of our party to fulfill the targets of our great Turkey," Yildirim told a news conference in Ankara.
He said he would travel straight to Diyarbakir following his nomination, the main city in the southeast, to visit the site of an explosion which killed 16 people last week. The region has seen some of its worst fighting in recent months since the height of the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s.
"I would like to say this to our nation just before I leave for Diyarbakir, where I will be sharing the pain of our citizens violently massacred there: my nation should not worry, we will remove this terror menace from Turkey’s agenda."
The AKP is electing a new leader after Ahmet Davutoglu announced earlier this month he was stepping down as head of the party and therefore as prime minister following an increasingly public rift with Erdogan.
Erdogan and his supporters see an executive presidency, akin to the system in the United States or France, as a guarantee against the fractious coalition politics that hampered the government in the 1990s. His opponents, including some skeptics within the AKP, say he is merely furthering his own ambition.
Rival candidates have been jockeying for position within the AKP, raising concern about fractures in the party. The Sozcu newspaper, fiercely critical of the AKP, printed a front-page story showing photos of Yildirim's ship-owner son playing roulette in a casino in Singapore last month. Party officials cast it as an attempt by rivals to undermine his candidacy.
Yildirim said his nomination was the result of consultation among nearly 800 key AKP members and that the congress on Sunday was a chance to "strengthen solidarity, ties and unity".
AKP sources have said a new cabinet could be announced as early as Monday. Investors will be watching for any changes in the economic management team, particularly whether Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, seen as an anchor of investor confidence, remains in office.
Born in the eastern province of Erzincan in 1955, Yildirim had long been touted as a potential party leader and prime minister, his name again coming to the fore as signs of tension between Erdogan and Davutoglu became more evident.
His ties to Erdogan date back to the 1990s when Yildirim, educated in shipbuilding and marine sciences, was in charge of a high-speed ferry company in Istanbul, where Erdogan was mayor.
"Yildirim’s primary qualification for the positions of AKP leader and PM is not his ability but his servility to the president," said Wolfango Piccoli of consultancy Teneo Intelligence, adding:
"In this regard, the overriding priority of the new PM and his cabinet will be to introduce an executive presidency."
Yildirim was among the co-founders when Erdogan formed the AKP in 2001 and was elected as a deputy for Istanbul in November 2002 when the party won its first election. He was appointed transport, maritime and communications minister, a post which he then almost continuously held in successive governments.
Infrastructure development has been a priority for the AKP and an area which Erdogan, party leader until he was forced to renounce formal AKP ties when he became president in 2014, always emphasized at election rallies, regarding it as a powerful vote winner.
Turkey has doubled the number of airports to more than 50, constructed high-speed train lines and built more than 17,000 km (10,500 miles) of highway during Yildirim's time as minister. He has also overseen some of Erdogan's pet projects, including an underground train tunnel linking the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, a third suspension bridge across the Bosphorus and a new Istanbul airport, billed to be one of the world's biggest.
A father of three, he is religiously conservative, describing in 2013 how he rejected the opportunity to attend one of the country's most prestigious universities after seeing male and female students sitting together in its gardens.
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler; Writing by Nick Tattersall, editing by Peter Millership)