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Ankara mayor in eccentric bid to show city is back in business

Ankara's mayor may be best known for his love of robots and dinosaurs, but his press conference shows he is very much in control
Pro-Erdogan protesters take to the streets of the capital Ankara on Monday (AFP)

ANKARA – At the stroke of midnight on Monday, the press office of Ankara’s mayor sent out an email to a select group of international journalists thanking them for their interest in hearing the mayor’s view on the botched coup of 15 July.

Attached was a Google Maps location directing journalists to a press conference to be held at 9.30 the next morning. Intriguingly, the map told reporters to assemble not at the mayor’s office, but in an industrial zone in the capital.

As it turned out, Melih Gokcek, the long-serving mayor of Turkey's capital, had decided that the best way to show the world his city was back in business was to sit journalists down in front of a line-up of Turkish businessmen, including the CEO of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI).

The conference kicked off with CEO Muharrem Dorkasli keenly reassuring attendees that the climate remained positive, and that his company had not been hit by the failed coup in any way - foreign export orders, he stressed, remained buoyant.

Dorkasli hammered home that 5,000 of his employees were back on the job, before surprising journalists by readily admitting that his company was one of the few that has not seen a post-coup purge of staff.

He said it was down to diligence - his company had been particularly tough in its security clearances.

Melih Gokcek, Ankara’s long-serving mayor, held a last minute press event on Tuesday (AFP)

After Dorkasli, a string of other businessmen took the floor. A Pakistani executive from a Germany company active in Ankara addressed the press - and the world - in an attempt to reassure them that all was rosy in Turkey, while an Italian businessman with interests in the Ankara industrial zone issued an address via Skype.

That was just the beginning. Just as it seemed the conference was winding down and journalists were being ushered out, the group was greeted by two open-top buses standing ready to whisk the press around the city, with a motorcycle escort clearing the traffic.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the mayor should not have been surprised. Gokcek has often stolen the limelight with his eccentricity.

In 2015, he erected a huge statue of a robot that eerily resembled a character out of Transformers at an Ankara intersection. In the wake of public outcry, he simply tore it down and said it would be replaced with a statue of a T-Rex dinosaur. Straight afterwards, his enthusiasm for the eccentric seemingly undampened, he took to Twitter to announce a dinosaur competition. The Brontosaurus - an iconic herbivore with an extremely long neck - eventually won, and now stands tall at the same intersection.    

The reasoning behind the open-top bus ride was two-fold. Firstly, to show the journalists that the city was functioning routinely, just as it was before the coup attempt, but also to showcase the places where destruction was heaped on the Turkish psyche during that turbulent weekend.

Our first stop was the Turkish parliament. We breezed through security checks to be welcomed by parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman.

Kahraman proceeded to hold a press conference where he spoke of the courage displayed by parliament and how it united in the face of adversity to display a common stand for democracy.

He talked also of the threat posed by the controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of orchestrating the coup. He stressed, too, the need for the international community - particularly the US where Gulen lives in exile - to deal with the threat he poses to the Turkish state.

Next, journalists were taken on a tour displaying the damage that the parliament suffered on the night of the attempted coup.

Journalists are shown the post-coup destruction (AFP)

An entire section of one building, which also houses the prime minister’s office, was lying in rubble. That rubble was left by a bomb dropped by a Turkish F-16 fighter, according to the officials.

One of the gardens had a huge crater, with the facade of the adjacent building also damaged.

After the parliament, journalists were taken to the lavish presidential palace. This is where the first sign that all was not actually business as usual appeared.

The journalists were not taken into the compound, but to the presidential office’s director of international relations. The official proceeded to hold a press conference in a tent erected in front of the palace, presumably due to ongoing assassination fears and heightened security.

We were then shown another crater, caused by a bomb near the wall of the compound, with guides airing videos of tanks running people over during the coup attempt. 

This was followed by a quick open-top bus ride to Ankara’s police headquarters, where journalists were shown a section of the building that had been badly damaged during the fighting that raged that night.

Security remains right in certain parts of the capital (MEE / Suraj Sharma)

But Gokcek, in his usual fashion, had saved the most dramatic part of the show for last.

He began his address by showing a commercial aired by the opposition Zaman newspaper on 15 October 2015, which he said was a subliminal message hinting at the coup attempt of 15 July.

The video then showed Gokcek’s tweets and his television appearance on the night of 15 July. The mayor insisted that he had been the first to tell people to take to the streets in support of Erdogan, before even the prime minister, and even the president himself, had done so.

In the current climate, where thousands have found themselves behind bars for their alleged anti-government views, some might consider it foolish to try to upstage the president - but Gokcek has always proved himself to be a master tactician and survivor.

He has been the capital’s mayor since 1994, and it does not look likely that he'll take a wrong step and relinquish the role any time soon.

During the conference, he said it had been his office that came up with the idea of blocking the entrances to military bases with heavy-tonnage vehicles belonging to the municipality, to prevent more tanks and armoured vehicles taking to the streets.

He then proceeded to show images of Turkish people treating the coup-plotting soldiers well, before laying into the Western media, and their pundits in particular.

Gokcek went on to cast a healthy amount of doubt on US claims of ignorance of the attempted coup, and warned that Washington could only prove otherwise by extraditing Gulen, Turkey’s current public enemy number one.

He also said he had been among those who the Gulen movement allegedly targeted for assassination during the coup.

He ended his press conference by assuring everyone that the city was back on its feet, and would always stand up for democracy with him as its head. Though everything might not be quite as rosy in the capital as Gokcek and his camp sought to portray, the fact he managed to get a group of international journalists to commit to a full-day curated tour with practically no notice whatsoever indicates that, at least for now, Gokcek is still holding the reins in the capital.

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