Turkey in microcosm

Turkey in microcosm

I never thought I would ever be interested in Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO) presidential elections. But I became interested with the recent vote. 

It started while I was watching TV when it was reported as breaking news that Osman Gökçek was running for the presidency of the ATO. I was wondering why the son of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek becoming a candidate to head the ATO should be breaking news, so I Googled the matter and went deeper into the archives. 

What I found was a “micro Turkey” picture, one that contained a power war similar to what is going on in all minor or major institutions of the country, a photo that gets dirtier as you look. 

The ATO is second after the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. It is a huge structure with 150,000 members. It has a wide bureaucratic network with an executive committee, assembly, commissions, support units, external services, etc. 

I could not find details of the ATO’s budget, but the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce’s budget for 2016 was 260 million Turkish Liras. Money keeps coming in… 

According to its activity reports, it is using the collected money to support its members, create opportunities for entrepreneurs, provide training, and organize seminars. It also makes charity donations, having donated 15 million liras to the Turkish police and 1.5 million liras to the flood-stricken Pakistan, among others. 

Going back to the ATO election, there was a very tense ATO assembly meeting on Aug. 30, during which Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) head Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu said “the entire administration should resign.” The target of Hisarcıklıoğlu’s accusation was the Gülen movement, or the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ). He was basically saying, “Clear it out.” 

Two months later, on Oct. 27, ATO President Salih Bezci, together with eight members of the executive board, resigned under the shadow of FETÖ accusations. The candidacy of Osman Gökçek came after this. 

A caretaker was appointed to head the ATO before the election. Comments on the certainty of Osman Gökçek’s victory dominated, but one week before the vote a surprise new candidate emerged: Gürsel Baran. 

Baran is a cousin of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wife Emine Erdoğan. Hard-line pro-government daily Akit writer Süleyman Yaşar wrote positively about him on Dec. 1.  

The election was held on Dec. 4. The atmosphere was so tense that it was reported to the Supreme Election Board that “there would be cheating in the election.” For this reason top-level security measures were taken: Cell phones were not allowed and cameras were shut down. 

At the election, 188 members voted. Baran received 100 of the 186 valid votes, defeating Osman Gökçek and becoming the new ATO president. Speaking after his win, the new elected president drew attention to the fight against FETÖ. 

“The ATO has experienced a July 15 coup process. We lost three years … But our security forces are working and we will do anything required that falls on our shoulders,” he said.

The losing party Gökçek also tried to present himself as the anti-FETÖ candidate: “I believe our statements against FETÖ reflected negatively at the ballot box. Baran has won fair and square but this does not mean the fight against FETÖ is over.”

So will the cutthroat competition for the ATO presidency end here?  

Pro-government daily Sabah columnist Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı, writing after the election, described Gökçek as his “close friend.” The piece claimed there was an alliance of certain key names in the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), along with “the person you would least expect,” TOBB head Kisarcıklıoğlu and former ATO President Bezci. 

“Osman Gökçek, in his concession speech, said he lost the elections because of certain statements he made against FETÖ. Could it be that Salih Bezci and Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu feared that the relationship between the ATO and FETÖ would be investigated for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 if Gökçek had won? Why has this strange picture emerged at the last minute? Why did Hisarcıklıoğlu and Bezci want to enter such a fight?” 

Let me also finish with a couple of questions: What kind of story is this? Who can untangle the strings of this extremely complicated network of relations?