Has the earthquake changed voters' minds in Turkey?

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6 min read
10 May, 2023

Antakya, Turkey - At the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of the city of Antakya, in Turkey's earthquake-hit region of Hatay, over 100 tents have been set up in an empty plot to accommodate around 500 people, with barely any space between them.

There is little in this low-income neighbourhood to suggest Turkey is heading towards its most consequential election since it was founded as a republic nearly 100 years ago.

Across the earthquake region, the election campaign has been muted. There have been no buses, fanfare, large rallies, or propaganda songs wafting through the air. Amid an increasingly tense political climate in the country, local politicians have been holding meetings with the population to hear their worries and concerns.

"Just three months ago, this province of southern Turkey, bordering Syria, was hit by two devastating earthquakes that caused widespread destruction in both countries and killed nearly 51,000 in Turkey alone"

Billboards across the city remind voters of election promises, but even posters are seemingly nowhere to be seen in this neighbourhood near one of the few surviving historic buildings in Antakya, the rock-carved church of Saint Pierre, inhabited mostly by Syrian refugees.

Amira Alma, 43, a Turkish woman who used to live in one of the severely damaged buildings in the neighbourhood, could be one of the few people here with the right to vote on 14 May– and she has no doubt who she will vote for.

“I hope he wins again,” she told The New Arab in her tent decorated with a clock and curtains to help keep the sun out, referring to the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just like many others in this southernmost region of Turkey, Amira is an Arabic speaker.

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“We do get help and supplies, the problem is there is no work,” she says. “When there is work, we go and pick strawberries for 200 lira (10 USD) a day. It's not enough.”

Just three months ago, this province of southern Turkey, bordering Syria, was hit by two devastating earthquakes that caused widespread destruction in both countries and killed nearly 51,000 in Turkey alone.

Virtually all of the population of Antakya has been rendered homeless. Residents now live in nearby camps, or villages in the mountains where they take shelter with family members. Many have moved to cities across the earthquake region.

A woman waits for news of her loved ones, believed to be trapped under a collapsed building on 7 February 2023 in Iskenderun, Turkey. Around 51,000 people in Turkey were killed in the earthquake. [Getty]

According to the mayor of Hatay's metropolitan municipality, Lütfü Savaş, 475,000 people have left the city. Around 23,000 are known to have lost their lives in this city alone. Thousands of people are still missing across the earthquake region.

On Sunday 14 May, its citizens will head to makeshift polling stations, erected mostly in the courtyards and gardens of schools, where they are expected to elect both a new president and local members of parliament.

After the earthquakes, Erdogan and its AKP-led government came under fire for a slow emergency response, and for failing to enforce existing building regulations that were introduced following another destructive earthquake in 1999 – which helped his own rise to power.

"According to pollster Metropoll, only 4.3 percent of people in Turkey now view the earthquake as the country's biggest problem – with most citing the country's economy"

But months later, polls and academic surveys - as well as interviews conducted in the field across the region – appear to suggest that people's perception of the disaster and the government's response to it largely rest on where they stand politically. AK party voters tend to blame contractors, rather than the government, for the disaster.

According to pollster Metropoll, only 4.3 percent of people in Turkey now view the earthquake as the country's biggest problem – with most citing the country's economy, battered by rampant inflation blamed by most economists on the Turkish president's unorthodox economic policies.

The election is on a knife edge. Erdogan and his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party or CHP, a nationalist, social democratic party, remain neck and neck in the polls – with the latest showing Erdogan trailing behind slightly.

Kilicdaroglu leads a coalition of six opposition parties known as the Nation Alliance. Staunchly secular nationalists are running on the same ticket as Islamists and former Erdogan allies with the common goal of unseating President Erdogan and ending what critics see as his increasingly autocratic rule.

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The AK party's campaign message across the earthquake region – largely a stronghold of the party with some exceptions, such as large urban centres and minority rural towns - has focused on the promise of rebuilding half a million homes – including containers – within a year.

“We applied for a container but still have had no answer,” says Ezgi, a 22-year-old Turkish literature student who lives with her family – who are staunch opposition supporters – in another camp set up by the municipality of Mersin on the side of a highway in Antakya.

This camp looks more liveable and better organised, but its residents still won't be able to escape the extreme heat of the summer months in this region.

“They left us alone for days, our loved ones died,” she told The New Arab. “I can't see any future now,” she says, adding that she is studying for an exam to become a teacher.

“We have online classes, but I can't follow them, the internet connection is not good enough. I can't prepare for it, it's very difficult,” she adds.

Turkey election poster Erdogan - Getty
Erdogan and his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party or CHP, remain neck and neck in the polls. [Getty]

Meanwhile, in the centre of Antakya, a few shops have reopened in the old bazaar, amid the ruins of the city's most iconic streets and buildings.

Ali Civelek, a 32-year-old health worker at a local hospital, has come to get some supplies from a nearby pharmacy.

“My home caught fire, but they never came to move the rubble,” he told The New Arab.

"Neither the AK party nor the opposition mean anything to us anymore. The ruling party may have forgotten Antakya. The opposition should have remembered it, but it also forgot"

“Search and rescue never came. I lost my grandmother. All our relatives lived in the same neighbourhood. My cousins passed away, my aunt passed away. Thank goodness we came out intact from the same building,” he recounts.

His grandmother's body, he says, was eventually found at the end of April. The family has submitted a DNA test for identification.

He says the entire family, traditionally supporters of the ruling party, won't vote this year.

“Neither the AK party nor the opposition mean anything to us anymore. The ruling party may have forgotten Antakya. The opposition should have remembered it, but it also forgot,” Ali says.

“We are in the middle.”

Ylenia Gostoli is a reporter currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has covered politics, social change, and conflict across the Middle East and Europe. Her work on refugees, migration and human trafficking has won awards and grants

Follow her on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli

 
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