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Turkey's Weirdest Mayor Won't Be Distracted By Electoral Fraud Allegations

Ankara's Melih Gökcek is known for mega-projects — like a canal to nowhere. He says he won Sunday's election, the opposition don't agree.
Photo via Reuters

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Digging a canal to nowhere and building Europe's largest theme park — Turkey’s most bizarre mayor has already entered the history books with these campaign promises.

For the last 20 years Melih Gökcek has led the fortunes of Ankara, the Turkish capital. He is now expected to get another five years in charge — one more success story in the nationwide victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in last Sunday’s elections.


The AKP won with a 45 percent landslide victory nationally. In Ankara, however, the outcome of the election was very close, and the opposition claim that Gökcek only won through electoral fraud. Gökcek was only 35,000 votes — less than one percentage point — ahead of his challenger, the Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavas.

In a TV interview during the election campaign, Gökcek broke down in tears at the thought that someone could vote for the opposition.

Ankara Mayor Melih Gökcek (center) attends an event as part of his election campaign on March 18, 2014. Photo via Reuters.

"Burned ballot boxes and power outages in key districts — does that sounds like a fair election to you?" posed Ayberk Yagiz, who heads an organization of independent, volunteer election observers. "We notice a large discrepancy between the number of votes documented by observers and the official result."

The crisis escalated on Tuesday as members of the government sought to dispel the rumors of electoral corruption. "This is really not a joke. The power is out, because a cat got into a transformer station," said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz. "It has happened before." On election night, the electricity failed in at least four districts of Ankara and in 40 cities across Turkey.

The clumsy responses have done little to calm opposition activists. At the same time, CHP candidate Yavas is going to formally raise fraud allegations. While the conflict over Ankara’s election is ongoing, we looked at Gökcek and his mega-projects in detail.


'He's almost like a mythical beast. There is only one of them in the world and we all know stories about him.'

"As our first great project we present the Ankapark!" thundered the mayor, wearing a childish expression, at a rally shortly before the election. Behind him, a huge screen turned on and bombarded the crowd with images of rollercoasters, cable cars, and dinosaurs. Surrounded by a facade of Seljuk minarets, domes, and sandstone walls, Gökcek announced that this oriental Disneyland could be "incredibly valuable for Ankara's tourism industry” and "attract 10 million visitors a year."

He got shouts of joy from the crowd, but the mayor was not finished yet. "In five years, Ankara will have its own Bosphorus!" he cried and promised a 6.8-mile-long canal to build the suburbs of this bone-dry city into the middle of the Anatolian mainland.

Gökcek’s third project — gondolas that would carry passengers high in the air over Ankara's congested roads — received more applause. He gradually added more and more projects until he had 18 in total. Metro lines, mosques, and a “Museum of Faith and History, where the mayor said “we will explain the miracles of the Quran. "After a dramatic pause, he continued: "People will enter it as infidels.You will leave it as believers. "

Not all of Ankara’s citizens are excited by these plans."If you watch him, then you wonder whether making notorious promises is actually very special disease?" wondered Ayten Merter, a student at the Technical University, as she watched her mayor on TV. "If there was a cure, I don’t know if it would work on him."


Many of the construction projects sound like Potemkin villages."When you look at corruption in Istanbul, you end up with a network of companies and dirty deals, but at least you know who is stealing from the pot. In Ankara, we don’t know their names," says Arif Sargin, head of the Architecture Department of the Technical University.

Bülent Batuman, a city planner from Bilkent University, is also not sure what to think of the promotional video for the new amusement park. "If you build a huge roller coaster, shouldn’t you involve an international company? But we have no indication that this will happen." In the video, the first roller coaster also looks rather tame and there are only a few weak gradients. "How will this attract 10 million tourists a year? That’s what Istanbul gets," says Batuman.

If Gökcek sometimes acts as if he considers the city like a giant sandbox, then that’s only following Prime Minister Erdogan, who has covered Istanbul, his showcase city, with a wave of large-scale projects. But although this bulldozer development has sparked massive anti-government protests in Istanbul, it has also brought an explosive growth of infrastructure and public transport with it.

Batuman says this has not occurred in Ankara, pointing to the capital’s Metro network. "It is one of the least transparent, most corrupt projects in the history of Turkey," he said. "In the last 17 years they have promised us five new lines and spent countless millions. Amazingly, the city has not yet opened a single new station.” Two years ago, the project was taken over by central government.


'Many of us are here because we are really, really sick of the man.'

A Twitter account about Ankara’s "City Planning Fails" has received over 47,500 followers since last year. A similar Facebook page has over 92,000 likes. Every day the accounts are filled with images of urban embarrassment: traffic lights with both red and green lights on at the same time, paths that lead into potholes, or incorrectly adjusted escalators, forcing passersby to race against the wrong direction.

Critics say that these problems are overlooked in favor of the more ambitious projects. "Here there is just as much anger over Gökcek as Erdogan," says Ezra Topaktas, a 26-year-old engineering student at Bilkent University. "He's almost like a mythical beast. There is only one of them in the world and we all know stories about him. Outsiders wouldn’t believe them as they’re too crazy. "

Republican People's Party candidate Mansur Yavas (center) has accused the incumbent of electoral fraud. Photo via Reuters.

A protester reads a book and another uses her smartphone as they wait in front of a police barricade on a road leading to the Supreme Electoral Board during protests in Ankara on April 2, 2014. Photo via Reuters.

Gökcek owes his illustrious reputation to his Twitter account, from which he hurls cold, hard, capitalized truths at his opponents. During last year's Gezi protests he made international headlines when he accused BBC correspondent Selin Girit of being a "foreign agent," and tweeted: "LED BY ENGLAND, THEY ARE TRYING TO COLLAPSE OUR ECONOMY VIA AGENTS HIRED, BOTH NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY.” He urged his 1.5 million followers on to harass the journalist on Twitter, and Girit received a flood of death threats.

As the protests had already calmed down, Gökcek made a lot of people angry by denying that the police had shot demonstrator Ethem Sarisülük, even though the incident was recorded on video. He also called for the establishment of a "vandalism museum” to showcase the damages made by demonstrators on public property. In July, he tweeted: "IN GERMANY IS THERE A MUSEUM ABOUT WHAT WAS DONE TO THE JEWS. I AM GOING TO BUILD A VANDALISM MUSEUM BUILDING, SO THAT WE TOO WE 'NEVER FORGET.’"

Also during his campaign startled Gökcek did not shrink from wild claims during his campaign either. Again and again he hinted that someone planning was his assassination. In a television interview, he stated: "They can plan an attack against me. But believe me, that's not important, because I have left my two sons five letters with the codes that reveal who wants to build a dark order in Turkey. "

The controversy surrounding his re-election has cost Gökcek’s confidence. He slammed the allegations of corruption and declared in a speech: "In fact, my 70,000 votes have been stolen." He has nothing but contempt for the volunteers and demonstrators who persevere with protesting in front of polling stations. "Their only goal is to create chaos."

For Mehmet Keles, a demonstrator, Gökcek’s words again illustrate why the mayor needs to go. "This is about democracy, and the fight against corruption in the election," Keles said. "But at the same time many of us are here because we are really, really sick of the man."