Portrait of the Week: Melih Gökçek (Part II)
In 2009, the popular but similarly hard-boiled Keçiören Mayor Turgut Altınok announced he would challenge Melih Gökçek for the ruling AK Party candidacy for the mayoral office.
Altınok was damning in his critique of the mayor’s conduct:
Municipality Mayor Melih Gökçek and his sons’ bodyguards are spreading terror on the streets. There are no services to our district. Even the water and gas has been cut to our doctors’ clinics. Even in wartime you cannot touch hospitals.
But at the last minute, Altınok withdrew from the race, and later resigned from the AK Party. An unknown individual had posted copies of sex tapes allegedly featuring Altınok and his mistress to various media outlets. Urban legends ever since have attributed Gökçek’s political longevity to a “vast archive” of similar tapes, but he no doubt owes more to always making sure he was always on the side of those in power.
Which brings us to one of the reasons for his possible dismissal: the mayor’s long history of association with the movement of Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, blamed for the 2016 failed coup. One of Gökçek’s close allies, Hüseyin Gülerce, was a well-known figure in the movement before dramatically breaking with it in December 2013. Moreover, Gökçek had his sons educated at Gülenist schools, one of which the movement even named in honour of his wife Nevin – and Gökçek, like other AK Party officials at the time, was an enthusiastic sponsor of the movement’s spread throughout Turkey.
Then-government spokesman Bülent Arınç publicly voiced these criticism of Gökçek during a 2015 spat: “Gökçek has sold Ankara to (the Gülenists) parcel by parcel. He got rich businessmen to build (them) schools. He ensured they got places for their student dorms.”
Few political figures of 30 years’ standing have transitioned so naturally to the world of Twitter as Melih Gökçek. His consistent block-caps taunting of opposition voices and ideas into the early hours of the morning was topped off by a team of lawyers issuing writs to those insulting him in the light of day. In his first two years on the platform, he opened cases against 800 fellow Twitter users for “insulting a public official in the course of their duties”. A consummate troll, he even sued a prominent Armenian-origin musician for joking that Gökçek was Armenian too.
He is also well known for using the medium, on which he has more than 4 million followers, to bully and insult. During 2013 Gezi protests, he launched a campaign against BBC journalist Selin Girit, accusing her of being a British agent provocateur, and later taunted U.S. government spokeswoman Marie Harf as a “stupid blonde”.
Then there is the saga of the 2014 local elections. This was the first time Gökçek came within a hair’s breadth of losing “his city”. The CHP mayoral candidate was Mansur Yavaş, who had his origins in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and ran a strong, media-savvy campaign though one that was marred by several incidents of violence, including one Yavaş campaign event raided by armed men who beat up a CHP activist into a coma.
The night of March 30, 2014 has gone on the record as one of the most notorious incidents in Turkey's electoral history, with the counting process in Ankara ridden with accusations of vote theft and burning, the intentional miscalculation of results, and ballot boxes allegedly replaced during “coincidental” electricity cuts. On that night, “a cat got into the electrical transformer” became a Turkish euphemism for vote-stealing. Worse of all, accusations of misconduct extended to an armed intervention by unidentified gunmen in one key vote counting centre, while two government ministers pushed their way into another.
Yavaş had already declared victory when the official count stopped due to electrical failures: it showed that he had nearly reached 50 percent of the vote with almost all of the ballot boxes left to open in pro-CHP areas of the city. But then, “the 2,500 difference (in votes between Gökçek and Yavaş) suddenly fell to 7,000, and then 12,000, and then as far as 20,000. In the morning, the difference was 27,000.” The count lasted three days before the final results were announced, an extremely strange thing in a country where vote counting usually takes mere hours.
In the end, the fiefdom of Ankara did not exchange hands, but the final result left Gökçek ahead by only 1 percent. While the AK Party may have kept a key city, it had given up whatever faith “the other half of Ankara” had in the electoral system.
Aristotle argued that “man is by nature a political animal”. This is especially true of Gökçek. At almost 70 years old, what is next after presiding over Ankara for almost a quarter of a century? No one, probably not even Gökçek himself, really knows. But he is unlikely to settle for being a wallflower or console himself to becoming a recluse. The former Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbaş, also forced to step down, said he would devote his life to “Islam and charity”. It is unlikely that Gökçek will willingly follow in his footsteps.
* Tim Lowell contributed to this article.