In earthquake epicentre, Turkey’s Erdogan remains popular

Elections on Sunday may bring sweeping change to Turkey, but in the earthquake zone many will still vote for the longtime leader.

"Solidarity of the century” billboard
In Kahramanmaras, many residents still support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, three months after twin earthquakes destroyed large parts of the city [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

Kahramanmaras, Turkey – “We were all alone. It was raining and we waited for days in front of the collapsed building. No one came to help us,” says Fatma, who sits with other women at a soup kitchen set up in a large white tent in the courtyard of an empty building in Turkey’s southern city of Kahramanmaras.

That cry resonates across the earthquake zone, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government was accused earlier this year of a slow response to the disaster, and for lax enforcement of existing building regulations. “Where is the state?” people would ask over and over as they camped out in front of demolished buildings, waiting for the bodies of their loved ones to be pulled out.

But as buildings crumbled in the centre of Kahramanmaras – an historic stronghold of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) – the same cannot be said of support for the incumbent president.

Seven out of eight parliamentary seats in the province are currently held by the ruling party’s coalition with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Just three months ago, the city was the closest to the epicentre of twin earthquakes that devasted the region on February 6 and killed at least 51,000 in Turkey alone. On Sunday, its citizens are called to vote in an election that may well be the most consequential in the country’s modern history.

Interative_Turkey_elections_2023_6_How Turkey has voted in the past-revised

‘We can’t afford to rent’

Outside the tent, a local NGO is distributing free food to those who, like Fatma, have been made homeless by the quakes. Her neighbourhood in the centre of Kahramanmaras suffered the most losses in the city. The area is now dotted with craters and rubble-strewn plots where dozens of high-rise buildings stood, and thousands of people lived and worked.

Fatma launches a tirade about everything that has gone wrong since then – at the end of which she asks that her real name be withheld.

“My husband is ill, we can’t stay in a camp so my friend is hosting us,” she tells Al Jazeera, “but how long can this go on for? How long can we be a burden to other people?”

The hairdresser, 50, says her husband is unable to work because of a back injury, while she has lost all her customers since the disaster.

“We can’t afford to rent an apartment. You used to be able to rent for 5,000 Turkish lira [$255]. Now you need at least 7,000-8,000 [$357-$408],” she says, referring to a spike in rent prices because of a rise in demand after the earthquakes, as well as inflation that hit more than 80 percent last year, according to official data.

“I think the government is not distributing aid well. They should check who is in need and who isn’t,” she concludes.

Turkey Alliances interactive

‘Some people are responsible’

In an increasingly polarised political climate, polls and research suggest the earthquake may have little effect on the outcome of the upcoming elections. One survey for the Ankara Institute suggests while 90 percent of government supporters rate the government’s response to the earthquake as successful, 90 percent of opposition supporters say it failed.

And while perceptions and ideas may vary across the 11 regions affected by the earthquake, in Kahramanmaras’s own “ground zero” this appears overwhelmingly true.

“Of course, I believe some people are responsible, who didn’t follow the building regulations,” says Mesut Islamoglu, 43, who recently reopened his optics store in a small shipping container along one of the city centre’s main avenues, across the road from where his store had been located for 18 years before it collapsed.

“We are people who believe this is a disaster from God,” he says. “We grieve for the people we have lost, for all the people we know. But we consider ourselves very lucky to be living amid such a great disaster.”

Mesut Islamoğlu, centre, outside his recently-reopened store
Mesut Islamoğlu, centre, outside his recently reopened store [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

Business, he says, is slowly picking up as glasses are in high demand and many residents of the city have returned over the last two weeks.

Nearby, workers hammer away at more containers being built to replace a deserted shopping centre across the road. A handful of people sit at tables set up on a pavement at a makeshift cafe that sells the typical firik, a local speciality bread made with sun-dried fermented yoghurt and thyme.

“We were told the government was going to build containers [for us], but I realised it was going to take a while,” he says, “so why be an extra burden on our state?”

‘He is the only one’

Erdogan’s People’s Alliance bloc faces a coalition of six parties known as the Nation Alliance and headed by the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

For weeks, the two have been neck and neck in the polls. Kilicdaroglu has been slightly ahead although many still predict the presidential election will go to a second round on May 28.

The joint opposition ticket includes staunch secularists as well as political Islamists and disgruntled former Erdogan allies. They promise to restore Turkey to a parliamentary democracy and reverse Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies based on interest rate cuts – which many economists blame for the country’s skyrocketing inflation and the Turkish currency’s loss of more than 70 percent of its value in the last two years.

“I trust Erdogan. We lost 11 cities to the earthquake. I think he is the only one who can rebuild them,” Islamoglu concludes.

Craters where buildings once stood in the shopping district
Craters sit where buildings once stood in Kahramanmaras’s shopping district [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

A muted campaign

Billboards across the city carry posters of both Kilicdaroglu and the opposition as well as Erdogan’s AK Party. One particularly effective image does not appear to address voters, but carries the slogan “solidarity of the century” alongside a photo of Erdogan hugging a veiled, weeping woman. It claims the state mobilised all its resources for earthquake victims.

More than 200,000 buildings were either destroyed or severely damaged in the earthquakes, and the estimated cost for Turkey could run upwards of $100bn, according to United Nations estimates.

Political campaigning has been muted across the earthquake area, where there have been no loud rallies or campaign buses blasting propaganda songs.

“We hold meetings with the people, out of respect for the victims,” says Ali Oztunc, a local politician and deputy leader of the opposition CHP. He estimates while one million people left the city after the earthquake, more than half have now returned.

While voters may still be loyal to Erdogan, he says people have turned their anger towards the local AK Party administration.

“There has been a backlash against the mayor, the municipality, the deputies. In this region, every drop for Erdogan below 70 percent is a failure,” says Oztunc.

As Turkish citizens are called to cast two different votes on May 14 – one to elect the president and another for a local member of parliament – he says he is hopeful some voters in the province may split their vote and opt for Erdogan as president, but give their parliament seat to the opposition.

Ultimately, the effect of one of the world’s greatest disasters on this key election will only be measured the morning after the vote.

Fatma, for her part, has no doubt about at least one of her votes.

“I don’t think [the government] failed us. For the presidential election I will vote for Tayyip,” she explains, referring to the incumbent by his middle name.

“But for parliament, I might vote for someone else, just to give everyone a chance.”

Source: Al Jazeera