Portrait of the Week: Melih Gökçek (Part I)

Melih Gökçek had been mayor of the Turkish capital for 8,260 days when he reluctantly agreed on Oct. 28 to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s polite "request" for him to resign.

Elected mayor of Ankara on March 23, 1994, Gökçek had been head of the council in Keçiören, the capital’s most populous district, from 1984 to 1989.

Some Ankara residents have spent their entire lives in a city run by Gökçek and shaped like Play-Doh according to his whims.

Ankara is not just any city in Turkey, built up by Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the new capital in centre of the Anatolian heartland. Away from the bigger and more cosmopolitan Istanbul, Ankara’s focus is politics. It is the seat of government and parliament, and home to all the ministries and their many thousands of civil servants.

For many, even those glad to see the back of him, it is hard to imagine Ankara without Gökçek, or Gökçek without Ankara.

Though synonymous with the city, Gökçek always had interests and ambition beyond the capital, and always enjoyed being in the national and even international news. From his rancorous Twitter messages, always typed in all capital letters, his own national television channel and his constant presence as a talking head on national and international affairs, he clearly displayed a wish to be “larger than Ankara”.

Meanwhile, he built up Ankara as if he were playing the computer game Sim City. He erected an entirely new part of the city to the north, lit up large parts of the capital with fluorescent coloured lights as if it were Las Vegas, and built bizarre theme parks decorated with gigantic plastic statues.


The North Ankara development - Ankara Municipality
The North Ankara development

Gökçek’s family is originally from the Halfeti district of Urfa, in the southeast, and he traces his family roots to Turkey’s Tartar minority, a fact he sometimes celebrated by organising events for the Tartars in Ankara.

His father, Ahmet Gökçek, was a politician and leader of the local branch of the right-wing Justice Party (AP) in the southeastern city of Gaziantep. Melih Gökçek went to school there before going to university in Ankara to study journalism.

His long-forgotten career in journalism then began with a job as a reporter for Haber daily in Gaziantep and he returned to Ankara as a parliamentary correspondent. After his military service, Gökçek settled in the capital for good, and joined the civil service.

Gökçek was a relative latecomer to politics, only becoming seriously engaged at 36, but he was elected mayor of Keçiören for the centre-right Motherland Party (ANAP) almost as soon as he started out in 1984. He later left ANAP to become a member of parliament for the Welfare Party, the leading force in Turkey’s growing Islamist movement, in 1991.

The same day Gökçek became Ankara’s mayor for the Welfare Party in 1994,

the fiery, up-and-coming Erdoğan was elected Welfare’s mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s more populous and more vibrant business capital.

After the secularist courts banned Welfare, Gökçek was re-elected for its successor party, the Virtue Party, in 1999.

Erdoğan briefly went to jail for incitement of religious or racial hatred, but emerged to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, a force that has dominated Turkish politics since it won power in November 2002. 

Gökçek, however, was something of a late convert, switching to two other parties before realising where the polls were headed and joining the AKP in 2003. He was never popular with the AK Party elites, not least because he spent two years criticising them before joining the party.

The Akşam newspaper on June 11, 2002, quoted Gökçek as saying:

“Those angry with the government see Tayyip Erdoğan as the only address. When citizens see that there is another alternative, they will turn to that other alternative. We are that alternative. Among their leaders, there is no second leader that has a past record of success like Melih Gökçek. There is no second person with the political and bureaucratic experience … Tayyip has a base, and I have a base. Tayyip has chosen to carry out a politics based only on the Virtue Party’s base. That means we’re at a great advantage.”

Melih Gökçek

As mayor, Gökçek was known for bombastic campaign promises and an uncompromising, bellicose style. He was equally aggressive towards those he saw as rivals within the party, outside the party, and anyone who stood in his way.

His way of getting things done was illustrated in 2003, when he instituted a referendum over a traffic-relieving proposal that was deeply unpopular for threatening to make the city centre much less pedestrian-friendly. There was no legal basis or precedent for a referendum at municipal level, and Gökçek was criticised when the municipality bussed in schoolchildren and slum-dwellers to the polls and told them how to vote. By the time the courts ruled the measure unconstitutional, the changes had already been made.

Similarly, he has repeatedly made manifesto promises to build Disneyland Middle East in Ankara, despite the total lack of interest from the Walt Disney Company. Instead the city has ended up with two enormous generic theme parks - Wonderland and Ankapark – both marked by a noticeably lax attitude to encroaching on the notoriously litigious company’s copyright. With his resignation, this is probably now a fight that he will never get to enjoy.


* Tim Lowell contributed to this article.

Read the second part of the portrait here: