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Decrepit Ankara theme park tells tale of Turkey’s turmoil

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The decaying dinosaur toys outside the abandoned theme park tell the tale of grand ambition, waste and troubles facing the long-ruling party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The problems started early for “Wonderland Eurasia”, meant to be Europe’s largest amusement venue and billed by Erdoğan as “a symbol of pride” at its opening in Ankara in March 2019.

Two days after the inauguration, a rollercoaster broke down, forcing people to scramble down to safety.

Public restrooms were a mess, some rides stood unfinished, and areas remained off-limits despite a reported $801 million spent on building Turkey’s version of Disneyland.

The park closed less than a year after it opened when the operator struggled to pay staff wages and electricity bills since there were not enough customers.

For Erdoğan’s critics, the park is one of the biggest symbols of waste by mayors from his ruling AK Party, in power for two decades and facing a general election no later than 2023.

Such was the level of anger, some of Turkey’s biggest cities — including Ankara and İstanbul — voted for mayors from opposition parties in 2019.

“Ankara’s urgent need was not a Disneyland. It was transport,” said Tezcan Karakuş Candan, who heads the Chamber of Architects’ Ankara branch, pointing out that the capital already has a large amusement park.

“This was a project of extravagance.”

‘Adolescent whim’

The city is now suing the operator in an attempt to win back control and try to do something constructive with the land.

An Ankara court will rule on the request on September 13.

The park itself stands eerily quiet, its broken toys and ride parts collecting dust and rotting at a waste site a few kilometers (miles) away.

Yet its problems appear never-ending, with the city reporting at least 21 attempts to steal its cables in the last three months alone.

Ankara’s popular current mayor, Mansur Yavaş, seen as a possible presidential challenger to Erdoğan, claims the park cost $801 million.

The former mayor, Melih Gökçek, puts the price tag at $500 million.

But Gökçek is also blamed for many other hated Ankara projects he oversaw between 1994 and 2017, when he was ousted by Erdogan.

The park was a bizarre idea even before construction started, planned for a city not known for tourism. Gökçek claimed it would bring in 10 million people a year.

Ankara welcomed 4.9 million domestic and international visitors in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

In stark contrast, Istanbul, famous for its Ottoman mosques, Byzantine-era buildings and sunsets on the Bosphorus, hosted nearly 15 million tourists in 2019.

Güven Arif Sargın, a professor in the architecture department at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, called the idea of trying to make the city attractive to tourists an “adolescent whim”.

Atatürk’s legacy

The deep dislike of Gokcek and his tenure as mayor, despite five electoral victories, led to the opposition easily winning his office in March 2019.

“Melih Gökçek is a symbol of how AKP local administrations betray cities, how they ran a process of plunder and a network of relations,” said Candan.

“We shouldn’t look at Gökçek alone.”

The Chamber of Architects tried to use the courts to stop construction, arguing it unlawfully transformed a natural protected area into a place of business.

The ex-mayor countered with a legal complaint against Candan and four other heads of professional chambers in which he accused them of slander, she told AFP.

The legal wrangles continue to this day.

But for many, Gökçek’s gravest crime was not the waste of a failed vanity project, but his destruction of the land it stood on — the Atatürk Forest Farm.

Gökçek’s fiercest critics view his amusement park as an attempt by Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted party to erase the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Atatürk envisioned the farming area in 1925 as the place where the capital’s residents would meet their future agricultural needs.

The area where “Wonderland Eurasia” stands once had a zoo open to the public. Erdoğan also built a 1,150-room presidential palace worth more than $600 million on part of the land.

Sargın said the “priority” was to turn the park and its equipment into “public property again”.

But Candan wants the area to fulfil Ataturk’s legacy, calling for “radical” action.

“Give the (park’s) toys away to regions that may need them, seek compensation from Melih Gökçek for the money spent, use that money to reforest the area,” Candan said.

“With such decisions, it can return to its original state.”


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