Erdogan again? Amid rubble of Turkey’s quake, voters demand to be heard

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national and AK Party flags during a campaign event ahead of the 14 May presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul, Turkey 9 May, 2023Reuters

As the sun beat down on a Turkish tent camp for earthquake survivors, Bahattin Kar emerged from his makeshift shelter to complain about the lack of electricity and water, the unfair distribution of aid and the surging cost of living.

But the 54-year-old remains steadfastly loyal to President Tayyip Erdogan ahead of national elections that are shaping up to be the toughest of the Turkish leader’s two-decade rule.

“If Tayyip Erdogan wins the election, these issues will be sorted. But if Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t win, woe to these people,” he said at the camp in ancient Antakya, the city worst hit by the powerful quake that struck in February, killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and leaving millions homeless.

Reuters interviews with Kar and a dozen other voters in Antakya reflected anger over what some viewed as a slow initial government response to the disaster. Yet they showed little evidence that the issue has changed how people will vote in the presidential and parliamentary polls on Sunday.

The voices are a small snapshot of Antakya and the wider area of southern Turkey hit by the earthquake, a region home to nine million voters and traditionally an Erdogan stronghold. Nonetheless, they chime with the findings of some pollsters and academics who say the disaster has entrenched already polarized views for and against Erdogan and his ruling AK Party.

Metropoll pollster Ozer Sencar said support levels for the AKP, which dipped below 33 per cent in February, had returned to pre-quake levels by April with some 40 per cent support. Only 4.3 per cent of voters viewed the quake as Turkey’s biggest problem last month, with most more concerned by an economy racked by rampant inflation.

Opinion polls suggest the landmark elections will be a tight race, with the presidential vote potentially going to a run-off two weeks later which would likely be between Erdogan and his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

A MAK survey this week put Erdogan, who has focused much of his campaign on pledges to rebuild the destroyed areas, on 45.4 per cent with Kilicdaroglu above the 50 per cent threshold needed to win the presidential election in the first round.

Seda Demiralp, international relations department chair at Istanbul’s Isik University, also said she did not expect the quake to have a big election impact as it differed from an economic crisis, which typically hurts those in power.

“I don’t think it decreased incumbent votes significantly, but maybe we could say it prevented them from increasing,” she said.

Demolition of Ancient Antakya

The streets of once-vibrant Antakya are now largely empty, with locals who didn’t flee elsewhere in Turkey now living like refugees, housed in tents and container cabins and lining up to seek help or enquire about public services.

Nearby, excavators resound as they demolish some of the 80-90 per cent of buildings estimated to have suffered quake damage. Trucks have cleared away the rubble of apartment blocks that collapsed, leaving huge empty areas in the heart of the city.

Only now is a slight semblance of normality returning, with a few shops and restaurants opening in the historical bazaar and the local government operating out of a high school.

With understandably little enthusiasm for the elections here, campaigning is muted in contrast to the noisy, colourful campaigns of the past, but parties are still canvassing for support in and around the city of 350,000 voters.

The opposing sides present very different narratives about Erdogan and his government’s response to the disaster.

“Our president has a very strong bond with our nation, a bond beyond charisma,” AKP lawmaker Abdulkadir Ozel told Reuters as people crowded around to listen to him outside a mosque in a village north of Antakya. “There is a strong foundation of confidence that he can deliver what he promised.”

That’s not so, according to Kerem Nalbant, a candidate for the pro-Kurdish party who was giving a speech to several dozen people who gathered on a veranda in the hills to the west of the city as a rooster crowed and children played nearby.

“The fundamental view is that the AKP-MHP government has left us in the ruins. They did not act timely to rescue people. This led to a serious accumulation of anger,” he said, referring to Erdogan’s party and its nationalist allies.

‘We’re not ready for election’

The AKP has long dominated the 11 provinces affected by the quake, but Kilicdaroglu’s CHP has strong support in southern areas of Hatay province, where Antakya is located. In 2018, the AKP took 5 parliamentary seats in Hatay and the CHP won four.

Kar’s support for Erdogan was echoed by Ertan Genc, another resident of the tent camp in central Antakya, who voiced confidence that he would have a new home within months. Erdogan has vowed to build new housing within a year.

“Our chief will win. And as long as our chief is alive, the whole world, Turkish citizens, are always with him,” the 48-year-old said.

On the eastern side of the Orontes River, in Antakya’s historic district, 63-year-old poet Hikmet Guzel held a contrasting view, saying voters would hold those regarded as responsible for failings in the disaster response accountable at the ballot box.

“There’s been a government in power for 21 years. And we were left alone,” he said. “If we live in a time when people say there’s no helping hand, then it’s a time for change and for trying new politicians.”

What many people in Antakya can agree on is that the elections aren’t high on their list of concerns, with day-to-day survival the most pressing issue.

“We need a helping hand from our state because we have no other branches to cling to,” said Cuneyt Ofkeli, a local official who has been busy checking voter lists and listening to locals’ concerns as he wanders streets strewn with rubble and surrounded by crumbling buildings.

“If our state doesn’t lend a helping hand, tens of thousands of people will remain in a ruined state,” he added. “We and thousands like us aren’t at all ready for the election.”