Quake anger ebbs in Erdogan stronghold ahead of vote


Latif Dalyan offers low-priced shirts and sweatpants to Turkey’s earthquake victims from a storefront surrounded by piles of trash.

The country’s president is the last person the 58-year-old shopkeeper wants to blame for the troubles of his ruined city.

“If there is one man who can stand this country again, it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Dalyan said near the epicenter of February’s quake in the city of Kahramanmaras.

“May God give a leader like him to every country.”

Dalyan’s enthusiasm is in sharp contrast to the cries of pain and anger that erupted when the 7.8-magnitude jolt and its aftershocks devastated parts of Turkey’s mountainous southeast in February.

Anguished survivors listen to their loved ones die slowly under mounds of rubble in the freezing cold.

Many have blamed the government and its stuttering response to Turkey’s worst disaster in modern times for a death toll that now exceeds 50,000.

But gradually that unrest is yielding to a combination of the fatal and reviving confidence in the man for whom this province gave three-quarters of its votes in the last general election in 2018.

That spells trouble for the opposition’s hopes of ending Erdogan’s two-decade rule over Turkey in a new poll set for May 14.

“No one can be perfect and no government can be perfect,” said Dalyan. “Everyone can make mistakes.”

– ‘We will not campaign’ –

Aydin Erdem, director of the KONDA research firm, found something similar in a poll conducted across Turkey’s disaster zone.

“Our surveys do not support claims that (the ruling party’s) vote dropped significantly because of what happened,” Erdem told Turkish media this week.

“The electorate is consolidating around their respective parties.”

The presidential and parliamentary votes next month are widely seen as the most important in Turkey’s post-Ottoman history.

Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted party have molded society in their image and tested the strength of Turkey’s secular traditions.

Critics accuse him of mismanaging the economy and using the courts to silence and imprison critics.

The government’s weak search and rescue effort appeared to allow the united opposition to capitalize on this discontent.

Cem Yildiz doesn’t see it that way.

The 34-year-old deputy leader of CHP, the main opposition party in Kahramanmaras province, has not campaigned much so far.

He says he fears it is rude and self-serving to pressure people to vote during a very sad moment.

“We will not campaign because the people here are in pain,” he said next to a container house that serves as his party’s temporary headquarters.

“We visit people to help them with their problems. We don’t ask for their votes.”

– ‘We had momentum’ –

The main office of the CHP, created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular state, was one of a number of unmentioned local buildings leveled or damaged by the quake.

Party officials decided to set up their new camp in a remote pocket of the city with strong liberal leanings.

Local men while away the hours in a teahouse on a street that witnessed a bloody attack by neo-Fascists on socialists and Alevi Kurds in 1978 that killed more than 100 people.

CHP supporter Mustafa Akdogan remembers those troubling days as they speak.

“Democracy, human rights and especially the rule of law have disappeared in the last four or five years,” said the 67-year-old retired teacher.

“So these elections are very important.”

But the self-imposed pause in his local party’s campaign leaves Akdogan less certain of victory than he was before the disaster.

“We had momentum before the quake,” he said. “Now, I’m not sure.”

– ‘For fear of saying anything’ –

There were over a million people in the city of Kahramanmaras and the province before February 6.

Officials struggle to estimate how many are left today. The deserted streets are dotted with tent camps and families sitting outside crumbled houses.

Some locals said that Kahramanmaras were mostly filled by poor people who did not have the opportunity to move out or spent their savings living in safer parts of Turkey.

Yasemin Tabak, a housewife, said she had no complaints about returning to Kahramanmaras.

She remembered Erdogan’s promise to rebuild houses within a year and smiled. “Our people have to be a little patient,” said the 40-year-old.

“May God protect our government,” agreed her tent neighbor Ayse Ak.

But two other women who looked down from a hill onto a large empty space where blocks of flats once stood revealed a quiet undercurrent of suspicion.

“People are afraid to say anything against the government here,” said the youngest.

“They’ll never do it on camera or give you their name. And I’m scared too.”

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