How Erdogan won Turkey’s earthquake-shattered south

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

At the end of the road, a functioning gas station still stood. Eren Yaka, an 18-year-old attendant there, had just taken part in an election for the first time, giving his vote to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We are with the reis,” he said, referring to Erdogan with an Ottoman-era moniker, meaning leader or chief, that the president had coined for himself.

The first of the twin earthquakes that rocked southern Turkey on Feb. 6 struck less than 15 miles from Nurdagi, leaving most of the town in ruins. A two-decade building boom here, emblematic of Erdogan’s nationwide focus on development, more than doubled its population to about 25,000. One in 6 people in Nurdagi died in the earthquakes. More than 50,000 were killed across the region, according to official figures; many observers believe the true toll is much higher.

The earthquakes came at a fraught time for Erdogan, who was already bracing for his toughest election in two decades. Polls suggested his grip on power was slipping, mainly owing to a faltering economy and soaring inflation. As the scale of the disaster became clear, and his government struggled to respond, many expected there would be a political price to pay. But on May 14, across the quake-shattered south — a traditional stronghold for Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — voters stood firm in their support for him.

In the six provinces with the highest death tolls, Erdogan averaged 63 percent of the vote. He lost in Hatay, which saw the worst of the devastation, but only by five hundredths of a point. Nationwide, Erdogan won 49 percent of votes to 45 percent for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the opposition alliance. The two men will face each other in a runoff on May 28, with the incumbent in a commanding position to solidify his hold on power.

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“Erdogan is a good man,” Yaka said. “Following the earthquakes, God bless him, he looked after us so well.”

After Yaka’s four-story apartment building was damaged and condemned, the government provided him with a container home that he said was outfitted with an air conditioner, a washing machine and a dishwasher. “Erdogan helped the victims so much,” he added. “These are things that are plainly visible.”

Much of the blame for the scale of the devastation was placed on shoddy construction practices, enabled in part by Erdogan and the AKP-controlled parliament. Delayed and disorganized rescue efforts were widely blamed for exacerbating the death toll and raised urgent questions about the president’s hollowing out of state institutions.

But in a country as polarized as Turkey, the tragedy did not appear to have changed the political fundamentals. “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 from the Ankara Institute think tank revealed a clean split along party lines: More than 90 percent of AKP voters felt the government successfully handled the earthquakes; nearly 96 percent of CHP voters felt the opposite.

It’s a dynamic reinforced by the state’s near-total control of the media, according to Gonul Tol, the Turkey program director at the Middle East Institute: “In polarized societies, and especially in autocracies, where there is limited access to information, truths may not matter as much,” she said.

About an hour north of Nurdagi is Kahramanmaras, a city of more than a half-million people that was among the worst-hit areas in the disaster zone. Mehmet, a 57-year-old appliance technician who voted for Erdogan and the AKP, pointed to a tent encampment where he was staying with his wife, and to local businesses that had begun operating out of a row of small prefabricated homes nearby. “What else could they possibly do?” he said.

Like others in this city, Mehmet spoke on the condition that he be identified by his first name or not at all, fearing repercussions for speaking openly about politics.

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He sat on a short wall near the municipal government building, up the road from an open-air sports stadium that had housed tent encampments for several weeks before it, too, was torn down. Erdogan visited the city on Feb. 8, two days after the earthquakes, and in a speech at the stadium he 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 roughly 2 million people have migrated away from the earthquake zone. Survivors had until April 2 to register to vote in their new district but only 133,000 did, according to Turkey’s Supreme Election Council. Everyone else who wanted to vote had to travel back to the areas they’d left, some at their own expense, others funded by political organizations or private donations.

It is not known yet how many people were able to make these trips. While overall voter turnout was 89 percent in the election’s first round, participation in much 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, an official with the local CHP-run government.

Erdogan proved more politically resilient here than his party. In the parliamentary elections to decide all 600 seats in Turkey’s national assembly, the AKP received the most votes of any party in the earthquake zone, but considerably less than it had in 2018. Support for the AKP in Kahramanmaras dropped 11 percentage points. “People showed their anger toward AKP [members of parliament], not President Erdogan,” said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, the executive director of the IstanPol think tank. Despite losing 27 parliamentary seats, the AKP won enough support to retain its alliance-based majority.

Okkes, a 64-year-old retired security guard in Kahramanmaras, excoriated the city’s AKP-led government, particularly what he described as an absence of leadership from its mayor. Both “the left and the right” were furious with him, Okkes said.

“People here are used to just voting for the AKP without thinking about it,” he added. “After this, it will be hard for the party to stay in power.” He was selling household wares out of his car on the side of a road just south of the old stadium. The lot behind him, once the site of an eight-story apartment building, had become a container park. He declined to say whom he’d voted for.

Some of those who cast their ballot for Erdogan spoke of him like an old friend. “He understands us in every way, 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 reform and righting the economy cornerstones of his campaign, some voters in the earthquake zone came to believe that Erdogan was the only one looking out for them. He came up with a rebuilding plan — to erect housing for every displaced person within a year — “even before people could pull their loved ones’ dead bodies out of the rubble,” Tol said.

Korkmaz noted that Kilicdaroglu has a quake recovery plan, too, but “the earthquake regions couldn’t get the opposition’s proposals” because of the state’s control of the media.

“The main strategy of Erdogan in this election was to manage the perceptions, rather than providing solutions to the issues,” said Korkmaz, who grew up in Malatya, another badly battered province. For his supporters, she said, despite a prolonged economic crisis and years of rebuilding ahead, “President Erdogan is still standing as the supreme leader.”

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