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Melih Gökçek, Mayor of Ankara since 1994

Gökçek rides again

Ankara’s erratic mayor is nominated for a fifth term – and will probably win

Melih Gökçek, Mayor of Ankara since 1994
Melih Gökçek, Mayor of Ankara since 1994

When the Gezi Park protests began in the summer of 2013, Istanbul’s mayor was the centre of attention: it was Kadir Topbaş’s plan, after all, to replace the park with a shopping centre. But when the protests became a platform for anger at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government and spread to Ankara, Melih Gökçek enjoyed a luxury his Istanbul counterpart did not: the gift of staying out of the way.

Mr Gökçek could easily have been one of those senior AK Party figures – including countless cabinet ministers – who simply fell silent in response to the Gezi protests. The prime minister had already set his party’s line by dismissing the protestors and fully backing the police response. A humble mayor of Ankara needed only to make a statement or two supporting the prime minister and appeal on protestors to return home. The story was already far above his paygrade for him to be a real part of it.

But Mr Gökçek is anything but humble. Already one of the country’s most followed Twitter users, he is notorious for launching lawsuits against anyone who insults him on the social network. In February, police escorted a 17-year-old girl out of an Istanbul high school because she started the hashtag #EdepsizsinMelihGokcek (“You are shameless Melih Gökçek”).

During Gezi, he used his position to attack those he saw as Turkey’s enemies. Notably, he launched a campaign based on a tweet he misquoted from the BBC’s Selin Girit, who was reporting on a Gezi protester’s views. Ms Girit is “a foreign agent hired from within Turkey to corrupt our economy”, he wrote, calling on “everyone who loves their country” to denounce her so the campaign is heard abroad.

Nominated again

Mr Gökçek, serving his fourth term as Ankara mayor and now nominated for a fifth, is wildly popular in the conservative north of the city and wildly unpopular in the secularist south.

The south, concentrated on the district of Çankaya, has consistently voted against him.

Çankaya was the spot Kemal Atatürk chose to build his presidential palace, but this is not just a traditional CHP heartland: here, the mayor is less popular than the AK Party. The party (Welfare [RP] in 1994, Virtue [FP] in 1999, and AK since 2004) has consistently performed better in parallel local elections than Mr Gökçek himself.

“We’ll never support him and he knows that, so he doesn’t fund anything here,” one Çankaya resident complains. It is certainly true that much of southern Ankara’s politics revolves around disputes – territorial, financial or both – between the CHP-run district council and Mr Gökçek’s citywide operation.

It was perhaps in knowledge of this and the mayor’s divisive personality that Mr Erdoğan considered dropping him as a nominee ahead of the 2009 election. But he is well-supported in northern districts like Keçiören, Altındağ and Sincan and has built a strong network of supporters there. The population of Ankara’s north ballooned as it became the focus point for migrants from the countryside over last twenty years. It boasts well-maintained roads, plenty of green space and the city’s only working metro.

Where does the metro go?

But Mr Gökçek’s strengths in local party organisation are not matched by his management of major projects. A metro extension project he inherited from his predecessor in 1994 was finally surrendered sixteen years later, incomplete and millions of lira overbudget, to the Ministry of Transport. “Large projects like these are not the domain of local government,” Mr Gökçek said at the time. The opposition said it was because AK-run councils had proved themselves incapable of delivery. And one midnight just last month, the mayor provoked a Gezi protest of his own when council workers turned up unannounced to tear up trees on a university campus’s land to make way for a road.

But his biggest challenge was winning his party’s nomination instead of, say, a cabinet minister who faces falling foul of the AK Party’s three-year rule. Now he is the nominee, he will probably be elected again. Çankaya notwithstanding, he remains popular in the capital. Barring the unpredictable, he will probably see out a full quarter century as the Turkish capital’s mayor.

Read more on the Ankara mayoral race here.