At the end of June, Melih Gökçek — the mayor of Ankara, Turkey, a city of four and a half million — took to twitter and accused a journalist working for the BBC of being both a spy and a traitor. He tried to popularize the hashtag, “Don’t be an agent on behalf of England, Selin Girit”; when others began using hashtags that said ‘Selin Girit is a journalist’ and that ‘Melih Gökçek was a provocateur,’ Gökçek — as Hurriyet notes — claimed that the latter hashtags became popular ‘on the BBC’s orders’ and that he’d sue anyone who ended up using the hashtag. He has tried to suggest that Memet Ali Alabora go to prison for his role in the Occupy Gezi protests, a move which led Memet Ali Alabora to seek protection.
Ankara is the second largest city in the country, and serves as the nation’s capital. Gökçek has served as the city’s Mayor since 1994, and that — in and of itself — suggests that something else must be going on. If Gökçek can promise to build a zoo for stuffed animals or bus in school children to vote for him one election and yet still somehow manage to survive as Mayor for nineteen years, there has to be something else at play. The idea of being so simultaneously competent and incompetent with power at the same time strikes me, as if Gökçek were a character emerging from a long lost Kapuściński manuscript or some sort of mistranslation of Caro’s old book on Robert Moses.
One source told me that it’s a combination of a few factors: (1) the AKP — Gökçek’s party and Erdogan’s party — has a lock on the gecekondu (which is vaguely like a cross between a slum and “The Tower of David,” though I very much have to emphasize the word ‘vaguely’ here): “he distributes food and coal, and has established dolmuş routes and city services even though the neighbourhoods themselves are technically illegal”; (2) he is one of “Demirel’s children” — as in, Süleyman Demirel, who served as Prime Minister of Turkey seven times — and — as such — he’s very good at integrating himself into “whatever state elite happens to seem to be popular at the time” (which isn’t to say that he flubs and fumbles his way there, too, where — for instance — he had the city’s gas debts taken care of by the energy ministry, and then tried to get permission for one of his friends to build new gas stations — and then responded angrily when that was rejected); (3) a young student at one of Ankara’s seventeen universities who wished to remain anonymous told me that “the staff at one mafia-owned cafe in the center of Kızılay once claimed to me that he was protecting them from the police,” which means that Gökçek is good at building up loyalty (I tried to reach out to Emin Çölaşan to see if I could get someone else to verify this claim, but I haven’t heard back from him or anyone else related to this particular point yet); (4) that the city council is on his side, and (5) that he drinks, but that doesn’t feel like enough.
I know of a few things Gökçek has done — that he’s building 150 clock towers around the city, and has put the city into debt as a result (and that he prioritised clock towers over expanding metro lines, too); that he put the football club Ankaragücü into debt, which led to their relegation, and tried to keep potential buyers away (and how he and his son followed that with the ruination of Ankaraspor); how he demolished büfes, bought quite a few cat toys on a whim while touring China, and tried to bring Disneyland to the city. On November 17th, he spoke of building the largest theme park in the world in Ankara (and — by the way — that a train line that has been under construction for twelve years will begin tests next month.)
His twitter account covers a range of subjects, noting on August 1st alone the change in advertising for dating websites if someone posts something in Farsi on his wall as opposed to not; how Iran has appointed a female Vice President; how Gezi was urban but the AKP has rural support; praises Dexter Filkins’s article on the Ergenekon trials (which is a surprisingly down to earth thing to do compared to his harassment of Selin Girit); says that “the best way to raise your profile as a columnist these days is to suggest something new to ban”; notes that people have started chanting ‘political slogan’ at football matches where political slogans are banned; and notes that the labels of alcohol that will say ‘Alcohol is not your friend’ is “hilarious.” It suggests a very self-aware individual. And then, and yet — also on August 1st — he says that all Gezi protesters are probably “nationalist racists.” A curious man in a fine city.