Kahramanmaras will be scarred by the aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey for a long time. Aid got off to a slow start, and yet President Erdogan’s support here is undiminished. Why is that?
The earthquake hit Kahramanmaras hard. But although many in the capital of the province of the same name blame the government for the initially poor management of this crisis, there was a clear result in the elections here: almost 72 percent voted for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kahramanmaras, commonly known as Maras for short, lies in a basin at 549 meters above sea level in the western foothills of the Taurus Mountains. The earthquake of the century has drawn a path of devastation through the city; the extent of the destruction is already evident when approaching the city.
And at the same time, Erdogan is omnipresent. Alone on the entrance road to the city center you pass a 100 meter long billboard of the Turkish President.
40 large portraits of the President are lined up there: Erdogan as a visionary, Erdogan in aviator gear and mirrored sunglasses as the commander-in-chief in front of a battleship, Erdogan kissing mothers and children. And in the city, too, one comes across pictures of the President everywhere, even in living room windows.
And where is the opposition?
Election advertising by the opposition parties, on the other hand: none. Shortly before the crucial runoff election for the presidency, the opposition is virtually non-existent in the public image of the city.
It is a difficult starting position for Erdogan’s rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who got just 22 percent of the votes here in the first ballot, and his party only 16 percent in the parliamentary elections held at the same time.
Lots of promises
Everyday life has returned to the city’s bazaar three and a half months after the disaster. However, the clothing retailer Ülkü Kundaci reports that many small markets did not open after the quake. Many shops are also closed and people have moved away.
Kundaci says she wants a change at the top of the country, partly because the economy is going downhill so sharply. Alone: Kundaci fears that things will turn out differently. Erdogan promised a lot, and the people of Maras believed in it. “I think Erdogan will win again,” she says somewhat resignedly.
A few meters away, the atmosphere is completely different. Jusuf Bozdag is a staunch AKP voter. The baker criticizes the parties that, despite major differences, have gathered together behind Kilicdaroglu. A party alliance is bad for the country. “They can’t lead,” he says as he pushes bread dough into the oven. He will vote for Erdogan again.
Mustafa Demir runs a small restaurant nearby. It’s easy to get into conversation with him and his guests, it quickly turns to politics, everyone here wants to give the government, Erdogan, the vote. Small mistakes are admitted here, but Erdogan will fix it, as always. “God bless our government. It is doing everything necessary,” says Demir.
The bystanders nod. Everything has been said, the mood almost solemn. Here the government is equated with the nation. Their promises are believed, the promises of the opposition are not.
Ali Öztunc is campaigning on the outskirts of Maras, organizing his campaign from a small election container. The CHP politician, a close confidant of Kilicdaroglu, has returned to parliament via the list.
Öztunc is greeted warmly by many on the streets. He grew up in Germany and was a crisis reporter for Turkish television for a long time. He can be with people, even here.
Öztunc wants to continue fighting for his candidate until election day, but laments the unequal, sometimes unfair conditions. With state funds alone, Erdogan’s AKP brought 150,000 voters who fled the earthquake area to the polls by bus and train, and also lured them with gifts of money.
In some cases, the voters had to photograph the ballot papers with the vote for Erdogan in order to receive money, says Öztunc. His party was only able to get 7,500 earthquake victims to the polls. So a question of money? Erdogan is using the state’s resources “unchecked,” says Öztunc.
Criticism only in hand
In the center of Maras then the encounter with a building contractor. He is currently organizing the demolition of a badly damaged, formerly twelve-storey house with excavators and other heavy equipment. Iron parts and electronics are separated. At this point, he says, 60 people died, a construction bungle.
He was involved in the rescue operations from the start and tried to help. But real support from the state only came after a few days.
He doesn’t want to give his name. The governing party distributes the orders, and criticism is not welcomed. The reconstruction will take at least ten years. “Maras is finished, a lot of people will move away,” he says.
Erdogan’s party is omnipresent, determines everything. Either you take part and benefit from it – or you only have disadvantages, he says. Many would therefore participate in the Erdogan system and benefit from it. But young, educated people in particular have few prospects.
Election result predictable?
In Maras, but also in other earthquake regions, there is hardly any change in mood. The people here will probably vote for Erdogan again this time.
Also because the opposition is not trusted. Hardly surprising. Because state television and many pro-government media have been running a negative campaign against Erdogan’s opponents for weeks. The opposition is rarely featured in the programme, and when it is, it is accused of incompetence.
At some point, people will think about it, says CHP politician Öztunc. Despite the poor general conditions, he is demonstratively optimistic: “We will win,” he says ARD.
But what is also becoming clear here in Maras is that people have expectations and hope that Erdogan will do something about the severe economic crisis. The baker Demir, an Erdogan fan, finds frank words: “We have to see action, also from the new government. Citizens know when to vote and when to vote out.”