The Earthquake Changed Turkey, but Change Is Complicated

ADIYAMAN, Turkey — Adiyaman is a southern province of Turkey that a lot of people miss on a map. Too small, too poor, too pious. Too Kurdish, yet not Kurdish enough. Its neighboring provinces carry the weight of history; Adiyaman is mostly known for its loose tobacco.

In the 2014 presidential election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 69 percent of the vote in Adiyaman. In 2018, he won 67 percent there.

The earthquakes that struck on Feb. 6 left more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria dead. More than 6,000 died in Adiyaman alone, where more than 1,200 buildings collapsed and thousands more were heavily damaged. In those first essential hours, the state was nowhere to be seen. Victims lay under the rubble waiting for rescue teams for days.

That failure was supposed to jolt places like Adiyaman out of their long alliance with Mr. Erdogan. Heading into the election on Sunday, the opposition, led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the Republican People’s Party, the C.H.P., expected a wave of protest votes.

That election was one of the closest of Mr. Erdogan’s career. Neither party managed to claim an outright majority in the first round, and a runoff is planned for May 28. If Mr. Erdogan is confident that he’ll succeed in the second round, it might be because of places like Adiyaman, where he won 66 percent of the vote.

For some voters in Ankara and Istanbul, it seemed like people in the southern provinces blindly voted for a president and a party that abandoned them when their need was dire. The truth is more complicated.

I spent a week in Adiyaman following the work of Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond), a group that monitors elections, and talking to survivors of the earthquakes about this election. People in Adiyaman are getting by again, but things are fragile. Many lost their jobs and Turkey’s hyperinflation has hit the region hard. But for now the government is paying attention. Families that were made homeless by the earthquakes are starting to settle into temporary housing. In one camp, container houses sent from Qatar overheat in the sun, but the road is freshly paved. A huge poster of Mr. Erdogan nearby promised free natural gas for a year. Mr. Kilicdaroglu pledged free housing for earthquake victims on another poster, but that one was a three-and-a-half-mile drive away.

Zeynep, a mother of four children whose husband was in the army, told me that supplies from the disaster relief ministry and her husband’s recent wage rise, courtesy of Mr. Erdogan’s government, were what allowed her to feed her family. Zeynep asked me not to use her full name for her husband’s sake. She favored Mr. Kilicdaroglu and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the H.D.P. Her husband is in the special operation forces, fighting Kurdish insurgents. She wasn’t going to vote in the first round. Maybe, she said, she’d vote in the second.

Sevgi, also a housewife, planned to vote but kept changing her mind. She didn’t like Mr. Erdogan, at least not anymore, but she was afraid of what her family would do if they found out she voted for the C.H.P.: the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and secularism; the party that once supported a ban against the head scarf in public institutions. Who knows, her family might say, what the C.H.P. would do next.

On the other side of town, near the local university, Ekrem Abaci, a muhtar — a sort of neighborhood representative — ordered people around in his office. Men unloaded water jugs from the trucks that kept arriving. The disaster response ministry was sending daily deliveries of water that the muhtar could distribute among his constituency. He and the men around him all told me the same thing: Our government took care of us. It may have come late, but any country would have been the same in such a disaster. The government is not to blame.

“Vote for Papa Tayyip tomorrow,” the muhtar called out to Hakan, a graduate student with a broken arm who had come in to collect some papers. Hakan was quiet for a moment, then he told me I could restart the voice recorder that I’d paused when he came in. He said that he’d voted his whole life for Mr. Erdogan and his party, but he wouldn’t this time. He’d vote against the nepotism that has left so many graduates like him unemployed, and the bureaucratic rot that means he gets fined when he shouldn’t and can’t access benefits he’s entitled to. Then he left.

It’s not that nothing in Adiyaman and neighboring provinces has changed: Many of the areas hit hardest by the earthquakes, which have historically supported Mr. Erdogan, shifted away from him in the first round. But when the sidewalk still crunches with leftover debris; when neighborhoods are still a mix of empty lots, where buildings once stood, and scattered tents; and when life is still a question of today, not tomorrow, a vote for change can feel like a big gamble.

Naomi Cohen (@naomireneecohen) is a freelance journalist in Istanbul.

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