When Melih Gökcek was mayor of the Turkish capital of Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared on the national stage as Istanbul’s highest ranking official. It was 1994 and victory in the nation’s two most important cities achieved by representatives of political Islam, marked a turning point in the balance of power in a country still largely in the hands of secular elites and governed by the army. While Erdoğan went on the do and win everything until he became the very symbol of his country, Gökçek maintained his position for twenty-three years and will do so for a few more hours. Using Twitter, one of his preferred means of communication, he announced on Saturday that he is standing down.
It is not easy to separate the image and evolution of the Turkish capital from its picturesque and controversial mayor, famous for his tenacity in fighting his opponents. The difference is that now Gökçek’s opponents are no longer (only) the country’s progressive forces or foreign powers, accused on more than one occasion of causing artificial tremors to destabilise Turkey – both literally and otherwise. The obstacle that he tried to overcome, and that turned out to be unsurmountable, has been friendly fire. In the end he was unable to say ‘no’ to the president, who has been voting against him for over twenty years.
Erdoğan has already outlined the new path to be followed by the AKP in his party conference speech in May, when he also formally resumed the party’s leadership, as allowed by the first of many innovations introduced by the presidential referendum held a month earlier. This head of state, who has been able to resume leadership of his party, immediately made himself clear; change was needed so as not to perish. The referendum won by a handful of votes and surrounded by never-ending protests about ballot papers that had not been stamped but were considered valid and a quite unbalanced campaign, has proved to be rather more than a wake-up call for a man not accustomed to running the risk of not winning. “Metal fatigue”, he called it, with his ever-present taste for metaphors. After many years in power, he believes that the AKP’s local leaders and administrators have lost their edge and with it consensus. In Istanbul and in Ankara, for example, votes in favour of presidentialism had experienced a reverse and almost specular result. It was instantly clear who would pay the price. The mayor of Istanbul, the very powerful Kadir Topbaş, the architect under whose leadership the metropolis on the Bosphorus had for 13 years become filled with cement and shopping centres, becoming, to quote Orhan Pamuk, “wealthier but less free”, stood down of his own accord and left without slamming the door. An outcome that, according to Erdoğan, seemed a sign of the customary absolute loyalty of his people; the largest and most important city was the first to “fall”.
That is not what happened. Obstacles appeared and how, and were enough to shake up the otherwise sleepy political set-up, with opponents (external ones) depressed by defeat in the referendum – or in prison since well before it – and the next elections still a long way off. “Mayors Resists” was the headlines used a few days ago by the Kemalist daily newspaper Sözcü, grasping at the impact of internal opposition to Erdoğan that might be more effective than “real” opponents. The mayors that “resist” are those of Ankara, Bursa and Balıkesir. Or rather, they were. A month after Istanbul, the fourth largest city in the country, Bursa, also fell, with its mayor Recep Altepe, another of political Islam’s historical representatives, announcing his resignation. This was rather a theatrical adieu, following a few red herrings and some rather unconvincing “we continue to work” statements. Aftermaths are of course also important. The bitter exchanges within the AKP, albeit behind the scenes, as always, will offend those pure of spirit. What matters, however, is the outcome.
And yet the question seems to be whether they should save their positions or simply save themselves. Erdoğan the ‘Cronus’, who has always devoured his friends and his heirs apparent – from Gül to Davutoğlu, all pushed aside or setting themselves aside without causing too much trouble – was not prepared to admit any objections. As suggested in an editorial published in the Hürriyet by Murat Yetkin, there could be worse things than just losing one’s job. After all, retirement is better than prison. This must have crossed the mind of Topbaş, whose son-in-law, the entrepreneur Ömer Faruk Kavurmaci, is accused of having links with Fethullah Gülen’s alleged network of coup leaders. It is a ‘son-in-law syndrome’ that has also affected the mayor of Düzce, a town on the Black Sea between Istanbul and Ankara, whose resignation came a few days after that of Topbaş, and a few weeks after his daughter’s husband was arrested, once again due to links with ‘gülenists’. Then came the turn of the mayor of Niğde, in central Anatolia and the breadbasket of AKP votes. And now, over a period of just a few hours, Bursa and Ankara have also fallen.
Once again the opposition has reported the lack of a democratic process, considering that mayors elected by the people have been replaced with mayors chosen by municipal councillors, remembering that, after all, one of Erdoğan’s mottos, once used to oppose games played by insiders, used to be “those who come to power through elections must leave through elections.” The result has seen the governors of millions of people changed because of one man’s wishes, or at best those of a group of leaders.
Only Balikesir, an important agricultural and industrial centre in Western Turkey, sill “resists” but who know for how long. Here, the mayor, Ahmet Edip Uğur, formerly an MP for a long time, has a significant local following and business interests to protect. Now, however, it now seems to be a matter of hours even for this last samurai. Resisting Erdoğan, alone, does not appear to be possible if one remains within the AKP. Every test of strength in Erdoğan’s party has always ended with the same winner.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
Credit: Adem Altan / AFP