Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş boosted by adept response to coronavirus crisis

Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş is now one of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s biggest names, but he did not start his political career with the party: He stood for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party when he was mayor of the Ankara district of Beypazarı from 1999 to 2009. 

Unlike many local mayors, however, Yavaş distinguished himself by helping to successfully renovate the district, making the most of its historic reputation for food production and Ottoman-style houses. Yavaş helped to encourage the restoration of historic buildings into museums, an unusual move in a country not renowned for protecting its historic sites. Yavaş is now winning more widespread popularity as mayor of Ankara, after the opposition CHP won both Ankara and Istanbul municipalities in 2019, much to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s displeasure.

Yavaş contrasts favourably with Ankara’s long-running mayor Melih Gökçek, who ran the municipality from 1994 to 2017. Gökçek, who won a contested victory against Yavaş in the mayoral election in 2014, was often an object of ridicule for the Turkish opposition.

Gökçek has been accused of inflaming tensions with protesters during a period of nationwide unrest that kicked off with the Gezi Park protests in 2013. He has also been accused of sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-Armenianism, and of wasting money on projects like building a statue of a large robot that looked like something out of Transformers, or a Gundam

”Respect the robot!” he famously told critics of the wasteful project, which was eventually replaced with a statue of… a T-Rex. Gökçek’s predilection for indulging in conspiracy theories even got the attention of the Economist, which called him Ankara’s ‘wacky mayor’.

Ankara’s citizens now find themselves with a mayor who contrasts positively with the embarrassing reputation of Gökçek. By the end of 2019, Ankara’s budget deficit, a legacy of Gökçek’s tenure, had been closed, and the municipality even ran a surplus. Yavaş said that the municipality had been wasting money, for example by using almost 2,000 private hire cars, which he cut down to 1,251. 

In January 2020, Gökçek was also named as a defendant in a corruption investigation by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s office, which says that under his tenure land had been illegally allocated to an organisation connected to Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher whom the Turkish government blames for the failed 2016 coup d’etat. Gökçek responded by calling Yavaş a secret member of Gülen’s outlawed movement and filing a counter lawsuit. 

Yavaş published a booklet about what he had accomplished by the end of 2019 called “200 Days with Mansur Yavaş”, which shows that he has taken a similar approach to government transparency to the one taken by Istanbul’s new opposition mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, for example by broadcasting discussions of tenders made by the local authority. Yavaş has said that 400,000 people watched the proceedings of a single open tender meeting, showing that people want more transparency in government.

A survey conducted by the CHP at the end of 2019 suggested that the mayors’ approval ratings had increased from 48.8 percent to 54.5 percent for İmamoğlu and from 50.9 percent to 54.9 percent for Yavaş. A MetroPOLL survey published in January also suggested that İmamoğlu was almost as popular among the Turkish public as Erdoğan, with Yavaş ranked in third place.

In February, a speech made by Yavaş gained significant traction on social media. “We spend your money and we are public servants,” he said. “It does not matter that we are associated with big titles or have official titles and protocols. We are no different than any other public servant; you pay our salary. All the money for all the work we do comes from you."

As the Turkish economist Mustafa Sönmez noted in al-Monitor: “The mounting coronavirus outbreak in Turkey has caught the government in a feeble financial state”. The cheap money produced by Western banks after the financial crisis which flowed into emerging markets like Turkey has now left, with investors considering Turkey less of a safe bet. This has led to capital flight and inflation, and the government’s attempts to stabilise the currency crisis have left Turkey with few reserves to spend on paying wages during the current crisis.

In response to the criticism of Erdoğan’s March 18 economic bailout package, which consisted mostly of tax breaks rather than any spending pledges, Yavaş and İmamoğlu both started fundraisers to help people affected by the economic fallout from the coronavirus. Then, Erdoğan announced his own national fundraising drive on Monday night, and the next day, the authorities said they were blocking donations to the municipal campaigns. 

As well as this fundraising drive, Yavaş also announced an “Economic Protection Package” for workers unable to carry on with their normal jobs due to the outbreak. 

“As Ankara Metropolitan Municipality, we provide food aid to 150,000 families under normal conditions, but we anticipate that this number will increase under the conditions we are in. Therefore, our food preparations will provide regular food to 500,000 families,” Yavaş said. He also promised “immediate cash support until the conditions of life return to normal” for citizens in need of support.

The perception of preparedness and organisation created by Yavaş during the past few weeks has made him a new star of the opposition, who have been looking for a serious challenger for some time. Although he has his roots in Turkey’s right-wing nationalist circles, Yavaş does not come across as a Turkey First-type demagogue. Instead, he has taken a humble, transparent approach which creates a contrast to the tough, strongman style of Erdoğan.

Figures like Yavaş and İmamoğlu also help to answer another problem which has long beset the secularist CHP. With so much of the Turkish population being Sunni Muslims, the AKP have been able to outflank the CHP on the right by appealing to a religious nationalism and by stereotyping the CHP as a party with close links to Turkey’s Alevi community. Over 10 percent of Turks are members of the country’s largest religious minority, but according to Minority Rights Group, “Alevis remain politically marginalised in the country, with limited representation in official positions of power”.

Politicians like Yavaş and Ekrem İmamoğlu therefore represent a serious threat to Erdoğan’s AKP and its longtime control over the conservative, Sunni, but moderate right wing in Turkey. This was seen when Yavaş was elected in 2019, stripping votes away from the MHP, who stood a joint candidate with the AKP. The AKP has also enjoyed favourable economic conditions for a long time, but those times look to be well and truly over, as the coronavirus compounds an already dire economic situation. However, the next general election will not take place for another three years, and the CHP needs to make bigger inroads into Erdoğan’s support base if it hopes to form a government.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.