How Erdogan overcame the earthquake in southern Turkey that broke

NURDAGI, Turkey – Near the center of this small town in southern Turkey, a man and his sons carried the doors and windows they had removed from an abandoned house to a waiting car, the glass shaking under their feet. The street, once lined with high-rise buildings, was now defined by flat rubble.

At the end of the road, a gas station stood still. Eren Yaka, who is 18 years old, had just participated in the election for the first time, casting his vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We have a reis,” he said, referring to Erdogan’s Ottoman-era moniker, meaning leader or general, which the president has coined for himself.

The first of two earthquakes which shook southern Turkey on Feb. 6 hit less than 15 kilometers from Nurdagi, leaving most of the town in ruins. This decade’s growth, a sign of Erdogan’s interest in development, has increased by nearly 25,000 people. One of the 6 people in Nurdagi he died in earthquakes. More than 50,000 were killed across the country, according to official figures; many observers believe the real risk is much higher.

The earthquakes reached a difficult time for Erdogan, who had already prepared for his most difficult decision in twenty years. Polls show that his influence has declined, largely due to the economic crisis and rising inflation. As the scale of the disaster became apparent, and his government struggled to respond, many expected a political price. But on May 14, in the earthquake-ravaged south – the stronghold of Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – voters rallied behind him.

In the six regions where the death toll was high, Erdogan won 63 percent of the vote. They lost in Hatay, which saw the worst destruction, but only five hundred. Nationally, Erdogan won 49 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and opposition agreement. The two men will meet at the summit on May 28, where the leader is responsible for strengthening his power.

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“Erdogan is a good person,” Yaka said. “After the earthquakes ended, God bless him, he took care of us very well.”

After Yaka’s four-storey house was damaged and condemned, the government gave him a container house which he said had an air conditioner, a washing machine and a dishwasher. “Erdogan helped the victims a lot,” he added. “These are pretty cool things.”

The main reason for the increase in the destruction was placed on the head useless construction projects, backed by Erdogan and the AKP-controlled parliament. Delays and incoherence in rescue operations were said to be increasing the death toll and raised questions about the President’s crackdown on local governments.

But in a divided country like Turkey, the tragedy did not change the political principles. “The Turkish electorate is divided into two groups or less,” said Murat Somer, a political scientist at Koc University in Istanbul.

A pre-election poll from the Ankara Institute think tank showed a clear split along party lines: More than 90 percent of AKP voters felt the government handled the earthquakes well; nearly 96 percent of CHP voters felt the opposite.

It is very encouraging because the government is controlling the media, according to Mr. Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute: “In conflict zones, especially in regimes, where there is little information, the truth is possible. It doesn’t matter,” he said.

About an hour north of Nurdagi is Kahramanmaras, a city of over half a million people that was one of the hardest hit areas of the disaster. Mehmet, a 57-year-old electrician who voted for Erdogan and the AKP, pointed to the tent camp where he lives with his wife, as well as local businesses that have started operating from a row of small houses nearby. “What else can they do?” he said.

Like others in the city, Mehmet spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing the consequences of speaking openly about politics.

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They sat on a short wall near the state government building, over the road from an open air stadium that housed tent camps for several weeks before collapsing, too. Erdogan visited the city on Feb. 8, two days after the earthquakes, and speaking at the stadium he acknowledged that the government is responding slowly and asked for cooperation. “This was very important,” said a 35-year-old construction worker in Kahramanmaras. “He didn’t leave us alone here.”

Turkey’s disaster management agency estimates that about 2 million people have moved to the quake zone. Survivors had until April 2 to register to vote in their new district but Only 133,000 did, according to the Supreme Election Council of Turkey. Everyone who wanted to vote had to go back to the places they left, some with their own money, some with the help of political organizations or private donations.

It is not yet known how many people were able to make these trips. Despite everything number of voters was 89 percent in the first round of the elections, participation in many areas of the disaster was low, in some areas with five or six percent. In Hatay, turnout reached 83 percent, although this was unexpected, said Bulent Ok, a CHP official.

Erdogan proved to be more politically stable than his own party. In the parliamentary elections to choose all 600 seats in the Turkish National Assembly, the AKP received the most votes of any party in the earthquake region, but less than in 2018. The AKP’s support in Kahramanmaras dropped by 11 percent. “People expressed their anger towards the AKP [members of parliament], not President Erdogan,” said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, director of the think tank IstanPol. Despite losing 27 parliamentary seats, the AKP won enough support to retain its coalition-based majority.

Okkes, a 64-year-old retired army officer from Kahramanmaras, was pleased with the city’s AKP-led government, especially what he described as a lack of leadership in its mayor. Both the “left and the right” were angry with him, Okkes said.

“People here are used to just voting for AKP without thinking,” he added. “After this, it will be difficult for the party to remain in power.” He used to sell household goods from his car on the side of the road south of the old stadium. The space behind it, which was once an eight-story building, became a container warehouse. He refused to say who voted for him.

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, an electronics technician. “We know who our president is.”

In times of tragedy and uncertainty, Tol said, people “want a leader who is confident.”

After the earthquakes, while Kilicdaroglu continued to reform the political system and improve the foundations of the political economy, some voters in the earthquake area believed that Erdogan was the only one looking out for them. He created a plan to rebuild – to build homes for every displaced person within a year – “even before people took the bodies of their loved ones out of the rubble,” Tol said.

Korkmaz said that Kilicdaroglu has an earthquake recovery plan, too, but “earthquake areas could not find the opinion of the opposition” because of Government control over the media.

“Erdogan’s main strategy in this election was to manipulate ideas, instead of offering solutions,” said Korkmaz, who grew up in Malatya, another hard-hit province. To his supporters, he said, despite the economic crisis and years of rebuilding ahead, “President Erdogan is still a great leader.”

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