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Ankara's dinosaur mayor: Melih Gokcek faces end in battle with Erdogan

Gokcek has put countless noses out of joint in 24 years as mayor of Ankara. But a showdown with Recep Tayyip Erdogan may spell the end
Gokcek in his mayor's office in 2016 (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Behind a slight frame lies a cunning and ambitious personality that has allowed Melih Gokcek to "boss" Ankara as mayor for 24 years. But that reign could end abruptly as he faces a battle for survival with his most formidable rival: the equally cunning president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The odds are firmly stacked in Erdogan's favour, now at the height of his powers and a master of political intrigue.

The reasons for the showdown, while not out in public, are several. Erdogan's rise to the executive has left many political rivals - and former allies - floundering in his wake. He demands loyalty, and casts aside those who so much as blink. Istanbul's mayor, Kadir Topbas, was a recent high-profile casualty.

Deplorable, heinous… are the type of words that come to mind. Melih Gokcek is very cunning. 

-  Yusuf Kanli, Turkish journalist 

And thanks to his actions and speeches - and what some would describe as a colourful manner - Gokcek, known as "Melih the boss" to supporters, is the latest to drift into Erdogan's sights.

But Gokcek is no ordinary opponent.

The boss has outlasted and outlived political parties he belonged to and on whose backs he rose to power. He started his career in the Motherland Party, then moved on to the Welfare, Virtue and Justice and Development parties respectively.

Tougher than the rest

When it comes to political astuteness and cunning there are few better. He has invested considerable political and other capital in Ankara's satellite cities. The result has been votes for him in Ankara as these cities have large populations living and working in the capital.

The 68-year-old is by no means universally popular. But this standoff has even ardent opponents reluctantly sympathising with him.

"Deplorable, heinous… are the type of words that come to mind. Melih Gokcek is very cunning. He knows where his interests lie and is determined not to compromise in any way," Yusuf Kanli, a veteran Turkish journalist and long-time Ankara resident, told Middle East Eye.

"From what we hear, Gokcek is very good at manipulation. But he doesn't stand a chance in a showdown with Erdogan. I pity Gokcek, however deplorable he might be, because no elected person should be told to resign - unless it is by a court on corruption charges or something like that," said Kanli.

Gokcek with his T-Rex (supplied)

What has made Gokcek really stand out is his unpredictability and eccentricity.

Gokcek has on multiple occasions alleged US ships anchored off Turkey's coasts are responsible for generating the earthquakes that plight Turkey.

My robot has more brains than all of you combined

- Melih Gokcek

In 2015, he also lashed out at a US State Department spokeswoman, calling her a "dumb blonde".

After last July's botched coup attempt, Gokcek was one of the first Turkish officials to suggest American involvement.

But he will arguably be most remembered for placing odd revolving statues on a roundabout in the capital. His first was a futuristic robot, for which he was unsuccessfully sued by city architects for wasting public funds. His response: "My robot has more brains than all of you combined."

Then came the age of dinosaurs. A T-Rex appeared in 2015, which was later replaced by a Brontosaurus, which was then moved on for something resembling an Allosaurus in December 2016.

The rotating statues, according to Gokcek's team, were meant to promote his theme park project called Ankapark - which is still unfinished.

Coup credit

Gocek was also not about to sit by and not take credit for putting down the attempted coup. He said he had called on the public to take to the streets even before Erdogan had.

He also said the hugely effective idea of placing municipality-owned heavy machinery and vehicles in front of military barracks to impede movement was first employed by his municipality.

These remarks didn't draw much of a rebuke then, but the landscape in Turkey changed after the 16 April referendum, where a shift from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency was endorsed with a narrow margin of 51.4 percent.

The narrow margin has Erdogan and his AKP worried about the outcome of the presidential elections slated for 2019. The winner of that election will officially be granted the powers of the super presidency – which are currently being used by Erdogan indirectly and unofficially, aided by state of emergency powers.

One of the first tasks that Erdogan took on after retaking the chairmanship of the AKP – enabled by the approved constitutional changes in the referendum – was to launch a clearing out operation within the party.

He has the country's major urban centres, most of which voted against his project in the referendum, in his primary sights. 

The main criteria for those wishing to remain in their post appears to be loyalty to Erdogan.

But Gokcek, unlike his former counterpart in Istanbul, Topbas, is not bowing out and "resigning" without a fight.

"Why should he resign? One person or one party should not have the power to force an elected person to resign. That is called authoritarianism," said Kanli.  

When talk of him being in Erdogan's sights rose to a crescendo in the local press after Topbas had resigned, he made sure he was at the airport and photographed shaking Erdogan's hand as the latter embarked on a visit to Iran on 4 October.

Erdogan and Gokcek do not see eye to eye (AFP)

On 5 October, when local media said Gokcek had been summoned to the presidential place upon Erdogan's return for a meeting to be informed of his resignation, he hit back and said he had requested that meeting the previous day to discuss his projects. And also that he was one of the few able to get an audience at such short notice.

Erdogan's frustration reached a level that in response to a question about Gokcek being asked to resign on board his plane on 12 October he said: "Just like you mentioned the situation to speak about those things also arose. We discussed it.

"As I have said previously this is not about Mr Melih personally. This subject has to do with the desire for change in our party and in some places."

An avid user of social media site Twitter, Gokcek is known for tweeting in all caps.

His response to more media speculation that he had been banned from commenting on the site was to post live videos of himself enjoying the various rollercoaster rides and the dinosaur museum at Ankapark.

And it was on Twitter that his supporters and detractors were making themselves heard. #DirenMelih (Resist Melih) was top-trending in Turkey on Monday.

One user wrote: I view Melih Gokcek as a successful politician. He is a person who created very valuable services and work. I have no doubts about his patriotism.

Another said: I really dislike Melih Gokcek but the way he is being removed from his post is an insult to the public, not to him. We will be saved the day we understand this.

Yet another user said: We elected you. We will remove you.

The jokes were not lagging either. 

Even a politician as seasoned and canny as Gokcek might find it impossible to stand up and resist Erdogan, who is at the height of his powers.

But party insiders are worried this internal purge – instead of being the AKP's habitual renewal and injection of fresh blood will lead to irreparable harm for the party.

Some party insiders privately told MEE they fear all those being cast aside by Erdogan could eventually band together to form a new opposition force that could damage the party's future.

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