Ankara’s abandoned theme park faces lawsuits and political controversy

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ISTANBUL – Once hailed as Europe’s largest theme park, Turkey’s Ankapark is now a landscape of decaying fiberglass dinosaurs and strewn debris left behind by thieves and vandals – as well as the subject of ongoing allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

The park, located in the north of Ankara on land bequeathed by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, recently passed into the hands of the city’s current municipal administration after remaining open for less than eight months.

Since plans for the amusement park were announced by Justice and Development Party (AKP) Mayor Melih Gokcek in 2013, the project has been rocked by legal issues and political scandal.

It was officially opened as Wonderland Eurasia by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March 2019 just days before national local elections as “[not] just a symbol of pride for Ankara, but for all of Turkey.

The 1.3 million square meter site was to house some 2,100 attractions, including 14 roller coasters, and was expected to attract 5 million visitors in its first year of operation. Instead, he drew lawsuits.

The 2019 elections saw Ankara transition from Erdogan’s AKP to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The new mayor, Mansur Yavas, quickly moved to pursue allegations of corruption during Gokcek’s years in office.

The former mayor oversaw the capital’s administration from 1994 until 2017, when he resigned under pressure from Erdogan. His tenure has been characterized by accusations of corruption, electoral fraud and outlandish conspiracy theories promoted by Gokcek himself, such as the claim that “foreign powers” have targeted Turkey in generating earthquakes.

Ankapark, which cost $801 million to build according to Yavas, is being investigated amid allegations that it was used to funnel state funds to companies closely linked to the AKP.

Yavas filed a number of criminal complaints against Gokcek for negligence and abuse of power.

Since the official closure of Ankapark in early 2020, the municipality has been fighting in court to bring the site back under its control, which it took possession of last week. Locals are now being asked about the site’s future, and hundreds have visited the dilapidated site over the weekend.

“It’s in a really shameful state when you consider the money spent,” Ahmet Aslan told the Sozcu Newspaper. “An incredible flight. In my opinion, this is a project made to transfer money to friends and acquaintances.

Yavas said on Tuesday that he had filed another criminal complaint with the prosecution against “those who caused the degradation of Ankapark in this way”.

He added, “We will never allow the pure money of the people of Ankara to be wasted. We are keeping the promise we made since before the election. We will take all measures that can be used here, which could minimize the damage, and we plan to open it to the public for free.

Gokcek, meanwhile, insisted that the park’s problems were due to those who came after his tenure, including Mustafa Tuna, the AKP mayor who succeeded him in 2017.

“I built it. I delivered it in working order,” Gokcek said in an interview with TV100 on Monday evening. “But an incompetent Mustafa Tuna and a visionless Mansur Yavas devastated the place.”

Anti-Corruption Group International Transparency ranked Turkey 96th out of 180 countries last year. The country’s corruption perception score was 38 out of 100, where zero indicates very corrupt and 100 means very clean. Ten years ago, Turkey’s score was 49.

In recent years, allegations of embezzlement of public funds have focused on public tenders for large-scale construction projects.

Critics argue that the AKP government and municipalities have awarded highly favorable contracts to companies controlled by their supporters. These companies often include media branches that support the ruling party and minimize opposition media coverage.

Ankara and Istanbul, which also fell to the CHP in 2019, have long been seen as important sources of resources to fuel such a patronage system.

After their victories, Yavas and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu claimed that a number of public works projects had been contracted out to pro-government companies, resulting in unnecessary public spending.

“Ankapark is the concrete version of all the corruption and waste that has been perpetrated in Turkey to date,” Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition Iyi party, said when visiting the site with Yavas on July 24.

She added: “I never understood why there was such curiosity about dinosaurs. We must not allow Ankapark to be forgotten in order to prevent similar things from happening again.

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