Discover more from Turkey recap
Voting amid rubble: How people in Turkey’s earthquake zone are thinking about elections
On Feb. 8, two days after major earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria, the situation in Kahramanmaraş was emotional and tense.
“Where is the state?” Ahmet Çiçek asked, echoing a common phrase at the time. He spoke while watching rescue crews try to locate his family members in mounds of rubble.
“Is the state coming here last? There are no tents, no food, no toilets,” Çiçek told Turkey recap. “We are angry.”
The state actually did come that day. Pres. Erdoğan visited Kahramanmaraş, escorted by security teams that jogged along with his car convoy, though not everyone in the crowd of onlookers reacted positively.
“It is not because of the pain of the people [that he’s here],” a bystander commented. “There is an election coming up. They came for their own advertisement.”
Those were the public sentiments more than two months ago. Now, much of that initial fury seems to have disappeared.
Following extensive interviews in both Kahramanmaraş and Hatay, some of the hardest hit areas, Turkey recap observed voting preferences changed less than originally expected, and voting day logistics remain widely under-developed, with potential impacts on regional voter turnout and election integrity, more broadly.
But we must note, the earthquake area is vast and diverse, meaning trends and statements in one province do not necessarily apply to other areas. Also, many of the people who remain in the region tend to be elderly or did not have the means or opportunities to find refuge elsewhere.
This cohort of older voters from often lower socioeconomic backgrounds is more likely to be affiliated with the AKP.
Voters outside their home provinces
Half of the 820,000 registered voters in Kahramanmaraş left, according to estimates from the local CHP head. Since only 50,000 voters registered to vote elsewhere, most voters will have to return to the province to cast their ballots for the May 14 elections.
In Hatay, a similar dynamic is taking shape among its more than 900,000 eligible voters.
“We think that around 200,000 of our voters are outside the province,” Hatay Mayor Lütfü Savaş told Turkey recap.
With the Hatay airport closed to incoming planes until after elections, Savaş said his party was working to arrange buses and boats to transport residents on voting day, but he acknowledged the difficulties posed by the short timeframe.
“At this moment, the possibilities for municipalities are not that strong. For this reason, it will be really difficult to bring people at the rate we want.”
He added there was some support from other CHP municipalities, like the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, but not from the government in Ankara.
“Everyone will work to bring in their own voters. No one will help anyone else,” Savaş said, adding this applies to both the opposition and the ruling People's Alliance. "But most of the outside voters vote for us.”
Mehmet Öntürk, the provincial chair for the AKP in Hatay, said his party could not afford to organize services like buses or trains for voters.
“As a party, we don’t have that kind of money,” he told Turkey recap, speaking from a container outfitted with Erdoğan campaign ads on the exterior.
“If citizens want to come, they can come. If the state wants to bring them, they will,” Öntürk said, making the distinction between the party and the state, which he stressed were two different entities.
Öntürk also said citizens were well aware of where they would cast their ballots. If schools that served as polling stations had been destroyed, the election board would set up tents or containers in the same locations instead. He also stressed there would not be any irregularities.
“Turkey is a very civilized country when it comes to elections. It knows a lot about these things,” Öntürk said.
Freedom House paints a different picture, with Turkey scoring 33 points out of 100 on its Election Vulnerability Index – 100 being the most secure.
“The score reflects an election system designed to concentrate government power, strict laws criminalizing online expression, and extralegal attempts to stifle independent journalism and silence dissent,” Freedom House researchers stated regarding Turkey.
Prospects for shifting voter preferences
In one of Antakya’s informal displacement camps – one with tents provided by the MHP-affiliated Ülkü Ocakları – the election was not really a topic of concern. Earthquake survivors there were mostly worried about access to basic goods and rising temperatures, which made their tents almost unbearably hot during the day.
Regardless, many voiced support for Erdoğan, just as they did over the last 20 years.
Reflecting on regional surveys conducted after the earthquakes, KONDA researcher Erman Bakırcı told Bianet he noted a similar tendency among respondents, many of which appear to be sticking with their long-time parties.
“People have voted generally in the same pattern in the last three elections and the party they vote for has become a part of their identity,” Bakırcı said. “We [would see] changes in voters' preferences under the current economic conditions if this was not the case.”
“We have observed a decline in AKP votes during the earthquakes but after [the promise to rebuild quickly], their momentum increased again. Thus, we do not expect any critical changes in that region,” he concluded.
Among the apparently exceptional cases is Tahsin Özer, a production worker in Antakya, who said the upcoming elections were critical.
“The election is more important to us than the earthquake right now. We expect change. I think if there will be no change, we will experience a second earthquake,” he told Turkey recap.
Hailing from Kahramanmaraş, Özer said he used to vote for Erdoğan, but changed his mind after the 2018 transition to an executive presidential system.
“It is not about the person, but a systemic problem. Our biggest guarantee was the law. Unfortunately, the law disappeared,” Özer said.
Speaking primarily about people in his immediate social circles, Özer said he hasn’t heard of many voters who plan to switch political parties.
He gave the example of family members who think they’ll lose access to their social security benefits if the opposition takes power. Özer said they believe this because that’s what the ruling party has been telling them.
“For example, my aunt has a disabled child,” he said. “She gets benefits for this. For the first time, they receive something on a regular basis. They just don't want to lose that.”
These beliefs, though unsubstantiated, are difficult to change, Özer noted.
“I'm also in discussions with my wife and I still can't convince her,” he told Turkey recap.
Similar tendencies were observed in Kahramanmaraş, where the bazaar was slowly coming back to life.
Among those in the market place was Tuğba Açıksarı, who had just reopened her shop, its shelves stocked with items for weddings and henna nights.
“At first, we also said: Where are you? Why are you not here,” recalled Açıksarı, referring to the state’s slow initial earthquake response. “We thought we were alone, but [the disaster did not hit just] one city. Ten cities were affected.”
She then continued to praise the state for its efforts after the earthquakes, a sentiment that was shared by other business owners at the bazaar as well as local shoppers and residents at an informal tent camp on the outskirts of the city.
Erdoğan's promises for a speedy reconstruction effort were often cited among the reasons interviewees supported the current president.
Apart from practical logistics and voter preferences, the earthquakes may also impact the overall integrity of the May 14 election results.
Oya Özarslan, board member of Transparency International, notes there have been a number of election irregularities in the recent past.
“We saw the İstanbul municipality elections, the referendum, in both cases and a number of other cases, the High Election Board made very questionable decisions,” she told Turkey recap.
She was referring to the election board’s (YSK) controversial decision to change the ballot regulations as voting was underway during the 2017 constitutional referendum .
The other highly disputed YSK decision was the annulment of the initial 2019 İstanbul municipal election, which required an election re-do after the AKP candidate lost by a slim margin.
But the list goes on, Özarslan said, noting ballot boxes in the nation’s southeast have been particularly vulnerable to interference.
“We have examples from the last elections, when the day or the night before elections, election observers from the opposition parties, especially from the HDP were arrested or detained,” Özarslan said.
Various election observers will be present during the upcoming May 14 elections. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will send a mission to Turkey, as they did in 2018.
Additionally, local civil society organizations will work on the ground, like Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond) and Türkiye Gönüllüleri (Turkey Volunteers). In collaboration with other organizations, both election watchdogs also launched Askıda Bilet, through which people can sponsor voters’ transportation tickets to the earthquake zone.
Political parties can appoint election observers as well, but this remains a challenge for parties in Antakya, CHP Antakya district chair Ümit Kutlu told Turkey recap.
“We had 782 election watchers. [During the earthquake,] 160 of those passed away, and approximately 400 have since left the city,” Kutlu said.
The party found people to replace them, but Kutlu is all but certain this will not be enough to prevent election fraud.
Questioning the official number of deaths in Hatay – Kutlu believes the number is 40,000-50,000 rather than the official 20,000 – he expressed fears that votes could be cast using the names of missing residents who have not been officially logged as deceased.
He then lashed out at the government for closing the Hatay airport, which according to officials was for technical reasons. Turkey recap also witnessed elevated water levels near the airport shortly after the earthquakes. Still, Kutlu suspects otherwise.
“This is purely to prevent the people of Hatay from coming and voting here”, he told Turkey recap. “AKP voters did not go out of town. They went to the villages. Our voters went to Mersin, other nearby provinces. They went to cities like Antalya.”
He estimates 300,000 people will need to come back, of which he guessed 70 percent would vote for CHP.
Asked whether he believed the elections would be free and fair, Kutlu responded, “Let me say this about the AKP: It even closes the airport, just so that the Republican People's Party will not get voters.”
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Gökalp Badak, editorial intern @gklpbdk