How Erdogan Won Earthquake-Torn Southern Turkey (2023)


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NURDAGI, Turkey — Near the center of this small town in southern Turkey, a father and his children carried doors and windows they had salvaged from an abandoned apartment building to a waiting truck, glass crunching underfoot. The street, once lined with multi-story buildings, was now defined by flat rubble.

At the end of the road there was still a working gas station. Eren Yaka, an 18-year-old participant there, had just participated in an election for the first time and cast his vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "We are along for the ride," he said, referring to Erdogan by an Ottoman nickname meaning leader or boss that the president had coined for himself.

the first oftwin quakeswhich struck southern Turkey on February 6 less than 15 miles from Nurdagi, leaving most of the town in ruins. A two-decade building boom here, emblematic of Erdogan's national focus on development, more than doubled the population to about 25,000. One out of 6 people in Nurdagideceasedin earthquakes. More than 50,000 were killed across the region, according to official figures; many observers believe the actual number is much higher.


The earthquakes came in onehard times for Erdogan, which was already preparing for its toughest election in two decades. Polls suggested his grip on power was slipping, largely due to a faltering economy and soaring inflation. As the scale of the disaster became clear and his government struggled to respond, many expected a political price to be paid. But on May 14, across the earthquake-ravaged south, a traditional stronghold of Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), voters stood firm in their support.

In the six provinces with the highest death toll, Erdogan averaged 63 percent of the vote. It lost to Hatay, which experienced the worst of the devastation, but only by five hundredths of a point. Nationally, Erdogan won 49 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) andopposition alliances. The two men will meet in a runoff on May 28, with the incumbent in a commanding position to strengthen his grip on power.

Erdogan has taken over as Turkey's elections are to be held

"Erdogan is a good man," Yaka said. "After the earthquakes, God bless him, he took good care of us."


After Yaka's four-story apartment building was damaged and condemned, the government provided him with a container house, which he said was equipped with air conditioning, a washing machine and a dishwasher. "Erdogan helped the victims a lot," he added. "These are things that are clearly visible."

Much of the blame for the extent of the destruction fell onpoor construction practices, enabled in part by Erdogan and the AKP-controlled parliament. The delayed and disorganized rescue efforts were widely blamed for exacerbating the death toll and raised pressing questions about the president's erosion of state institutions.

But in a country as polarized as Turkey, the tragedy did not seem to have changed the political foundations. "The Turkish electorate is divided into two more or less frozen blocs," said Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul's Koc University.


A pre-election poll by the Ankara Institute think tank revealed a clear party divide: More than 90 percent of AKP voters felt the government was successful in handling the earthquakes; nearly 96 percent of CHP voters thought otherwise.

It's a dynamic reinforced by near-total state control of the media, according to Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey Program at the Middle East Institute: "In polarized societies, and especially autocracies where access to information is limited, truths may not matter as much a lot," he said.

About an hour north of Nurdagi is Kahramanmaras, a city of more than half a million people that was among the hardest hit areas in the disaster zone. Mehmet, a 57-year-old appliance technician who voted for Erdogan and the AKP, pointed to a tent camp where he lived with his wife and local businesses that had started operating in a series of small prefabs nearby. "What else could they do?" he said.


Like others in this city, Mehmet spoke on the condition that he be identified by his first name or not, fearing the consequences of speaking out about politics.

A new threat emerges in earthquake-stricken Turkey: Mountains of rubble

He sat on a low wall near the municipal government building, up the street from an outdoor sports arena that had housed tent camps for weeks before it was also demolished. Erdogan visited the city on February 8, two days after the earthquakes, and in a speech at the stadium acknowledged the state's slow response and appealed for unity. "This was very important," said a 35-year-old construction worker in Kahramanmaras. "He didn't leave us here alone."

Turkey's Disaster Management Agency estimates that around 2 million people have migrated out of the earthquake zone. Survivors had until April 2 to register to vote in their new district, butonly 133,000 did, according to the Supreme Electoral Council of Türkiye. All others who wanted to vote had to travel back to the areas they had left, some at their own expense, others financed by political organizations or private donations.


It is not yet known how many people were able to make these trips. While in generalelectoral participationwas 89 percent in the first round of the election, turnout in large parts of the disaster area was lower, in some provinces by five or six percentage points. In Hatay, turnout fell to 83 percent, though even that was far above expectations, said Bulent Ok, a local government official led by the CHP.

Erdogan proved more politically resilient here than his party. In parliamentary elections to decide Turkey's 600-seat National Assembly, the AKP received the most votes of any party in the earthquake zone, but significantly fewer than in 2018. Support for the AKP in Kahramanmaras fell by 11 percentage points. "People showed their anger against the AKP [MPs], not against President Erdogan," said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of the IstanPol think tank. Despite losing 27 parliamentary seats, the AKP gained enough support to maintain its alliance-based majority.

Okkes, a 64-year-old retired security guard from Kahramanmaras, criticized the city's AKP-led government, particularly what he described as its mayor's lack of leadership. Both "the left and the right" were furious with him, Okkes said.


"People here are used to voting for the AKP without thinking," he added. "After this, it will be difficult for the party to stay in power." He sold household items out of his car on the side of a road south of the old stadium. The lot behind him, once an eight-story apartment building, had been turned into a container park. He refused to say who he had voted for.

Some of those who voted for Erdogan spoke of him as an old friend. "He understands us in every way, he knows us in every way," said Mehmet, the appliance technician. "We know who our president is."

In a time of disaster and uncertainty, Tol said, people "just want an assertive leader."

After the earthquakes, as Kilicdaroglu continued to make political reforms and fix the economy the pillars of his campaign, some voters in the earthquake zone came to believe that Erdogan was the only one looking out for them. He devised a reconstruction plan to build homes for each displaced person within a year, "even before people could pull the bodies of their loved ones out of the rubble," Tol said.


Korkmaz noted that Kilicdaroglu also has an earthquake recovery plan, but "the earthquake regions could not get the opposition proposal" becausestate control of the media.

"Erdogan's main strategy in this election was to manage perceptions instead of providing solutions to problems," said Korkmaz, who grew up in Malatya, another hard-hit province. He told his supporters that despite a prolonged economic crisis and years of reconstruction ahead, "President Erdogan remains the supreme leader."

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