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In polarized Türkiye, not even an earthquake can shake the deep ideological divisions

In polarized Türkiye, not even an earthquake can shake the deep ideological divisions


Antakya, Türkiye CNN –

Bedi Degermanci has caught his first breath of fresh air since the brutal earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey three months ago.

For three days, the 36-year-old was trapped under the rubble of his home in Hatay. He was then taken to hospital with head and spine injuries, and was released from hospital only on Wednesday, just days before the country’s historic presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14.

Deep wounds frame the right side of Bede’s face and he now walks with a permanent limp. When he reunites with the few relatives who survived the earthquake, a crescendo of sobs fills the air—a sadness of bereavement that comforts Bede’s recovery.

The earthquake killed Bedi’s wife, his wife’s parents, his two daughters, and their cousin. The children were 4, 5 and 6 years old. Two other children from the wider family were also killed.

For his tragedy, Bedi blames the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is fighting for a third term, for economic headwinds and criticism that the impact of the Feb. 6 earthquake has been exacerbated by lax building controls and shameful rescue efforts.

The earthquake claimed more than 50,000 lives in neighboring Turkey and Syria, and displaced more than 6 million people. The state’s emergency workers were virtually absent in many parts of the disaster area for the first few days that followed.

For three days, Bedi’s relative – Caner Değermanci – made a heavy road to the family’s destroyed home in Hatay. Just over 72 hours later, he and an Italian rescue team, Vigili Del Fuoco, rescued Pedi and recovered the bodies of his wife and two daughters.

For the first forty-eight hours under the rubble, my daughter, Talia, was alive. “We were constantly talking to each other,” Bedi says. Then all of a sudden she stopped talking.

“What happened was not a disaster. It was a murder.”

The day after the earthquake, Erdoğan rebuked critics of the government’s failed response to the earthquake. Days later, the government admitted the failure of the rescue effort and issued a public apology.

Criticism of the government quickly came to dominate the issue of building standards, which have been watered down since Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party came to power. In the weeks after the earthquake, the government arrested dozens of contractors, building inspectors, and project managers for violating building codes.

Critics have dismissed the arrests as scapegoats. Relaxed building regulations were at the heart of the building boom that supercharged Erdogan’s 20-year rule, they argued, and the earthquake’s fallout was an indictment of the country’s powerful leader.

However, in Erdoğan’s quake zone strongholds in southeastern Turkey, these criticisms may have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Opinion polls give opposition coalition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu a slight national lead over Erdogan (earthquake area polling data is hard to come by). Kilicdaroglu’s support may increase due to the late withdrawal from the race of a minor candidate, Muharrem Ines. But one of the polls – Selkoki of Istanbul Economics Research – says the government’s response to the earthquake has done little to sway voters.

“This is the most tense moment in Turkish society,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. (The elections) will be about the future direction of the country and two radically different visions of where Turkey will go. And the opposition is galvanized.”

For Aydintaşbash, the earthquake may have cemented those deep divisions. Opposition-leaning communities are more angry than ever at Erdogan, while his support base has embraced the ruling party’s main talking point: Mistakes were made in the beginning and now only Erdogan can rebuild what has been destroyed.

“More than anything else, the earthquake consolidated both sides,” Aydin Taşbaş said.

Outside her government-supplied tent in Kahramanmaras, a middle-aged woman in a headscarf smiles discreetly at passers-by as she reads the Koran. Nuray Kanpolat’s neighbors in the tent garden appear to be in a jovial mood, singing pro-Erdogan chants and waving ruling party flags.

Kahramanmaras is the epicenter and Erdogan’s conservative energy base.

Nurai says she tried to hang out in her damaged apartment for weeks before resigning herself to leaving. “All I could ever wish for was a home. But I know that since I’m the only tenant in my apartment, I’ll be one of the last to get back what I’ve lost.”

At first glance, it seems that Kahramanmaraş has come back to life. Cars filled the streets, and people flocked to the main markets. Many here see this as evidence that the government will deliver on its promises to rebuild quickly. Erdogan’s election campaign posters line the streets with the slogan: Right man, right time.

Most of the buildings here are either ruined or too dangerous to live in. Tent gardens dot the hill town, which boasts stunning mountain views.

“Of course I will vote for President Erdogan,” Nuray says with a smile. People make mistakes and you have to love people in spite of their mistakes.

“First, God will save us. Then our President Erdogan will save us.”

This appeal to faith in the Turkish leader reverberates throughout the city. For many here, the sluggish response to the recent earthquake and financial crisis — which sent prices soaring and the currency plummeting — pales in comparison to Erdogan’s achievements in the first half of his two-decade rule.

The early years of Erdogan’s leadership saw millions lifted out of poverty. He rescinded secular policies that suppressed expressions of faith, such as banning headscarves in universities. Erdogan’s combative foreign policy, his supporters argue, has given Turkey a strong position, even if his international adventurism has been seen as reckless at times.

Many here say they must repay a debt to him with a fidelity that not even a massive earthquake can shake.

“Is there a leader in any other country as beloved as President Erdogan?” says a shopkeeper in Kahramanmaras bazaar.

Another trader said, “It’s impossible for him to lose this election. Ok, ok, ok all the way. He’s going to get 60% of the vote.”

Hanifi Guler, 53, says he lost 25 members of his extended family when a large apartment building collapsed in the earthquake. “The boss happily said he would pay and I believe him,” he says. “The government has done its best.”

However, there are a few dissenting voices. Hasan Bilir, a bearded elderly man who has always voted for Erdogan, says his trust in the president has gone too far.

They see Erdogan as a saint. That’s a lot. I live on earthquake help. He says, referring to Kilicdaroglu, that I will not vote for him or for the other candidate.

“This earthquake will not make anyone vote differently,” says Salih Yenikumshu, 48, a jeweler and opposition supporter. “People believe in him and think he is above reproach.”

Beneath the veneer of normality here, cracks are starting to show. As night falls, bustling markets give way to food banks. Many merchants do not go home, but go back to tents or, if they are lucky, to a zinc container.

A middle-aged man spits towards a poster of Erdogan. “I lost my wife, son and grandson,” he says. I was a big supporter of the AKP but now I spit on it. Many of us do.

“We trusted them just because they were Muslims.”

Diaa Kahwaji, a first-time voter, says he prefers to stay out of politics. It even raises the specter of “election night riots.”

“I have close friends who said they would take to the streets and riot if the ruling party lost,” he says.

Fears of violence have reached their peak in recent days after pro-government youths threw stones at an opposition demonstration last weekend.

I can’t convince my friends not to take to the streets. They are yelling at me. I can’t even talk to them about the election. “The polarization in this country is very deep,” he says.

“On election night, I’m going to chain the door to my apartment and the building.”

Back in Hatay, where the vote is usually split between loyalist and secular opposition groups, the government’s presence is barely visible. The city is a ghost town and no building has been left unharmed. Ottoman-era arches protruding from the piles of rubble are the only remaining testimonies to its rich history.

The new cemeteries extend outside the city for hundreds of meters, and most of them have unmarked graves. DNA samples are collected here to help family members identify the thousands of people who are still missing.

Sometimes those who bury the dead leave clues. In the Narlica tomb, the plank on grave No. 236 is covered with a white garment worn by a child as young as two years old.

“We feel like the living dead. I feel like a balloon blowing up in the wind,” says Meltim Canımoğlu, sister-in-law of Bedi Değirmenci, who was stuck under the rubble in Hatay.

She still sends text messages to her dead parents. She also lost her six-year-old son, as well as her sister, Bede’s wife.

Multam’s husband, Ayhan, sits with quiet dignity next to his weeping wife. He says he is determined to take his grief to the ballot box and cast his vote for Kılıçdaroğlu.

“The ballot box is the only way to hold those responsible to account,” he says.

“We hope to close the gates of hell.”




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