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Istanbul lays bare Turkey’s electoral fault lines

Istanbul lays bare Turkey’s electoral fault lines

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“Nothing will be the same.”

In a country still reeling from last month’s devastating earthquake, these words from Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu highlight how the disaster now entirely pervades and steers national politics — with significant potential consequences for the two-decade-long rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who faces an election on May 14.

İmamoğlu is one of the main opposition politicians seeking to eject the sitting president from power in two months time, and it has escaped no one’s attention that Erdoğan before him had used the Istanbul mayorship as a springboard to national office. And while Turkey’s opposition has rallied behind former bureaucrat Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the unity candidate to defeat Erdoğan in the race for the presidency, İmamoğlu has been identified as a vice-president in the wings.

Addressing a crowd that greeted him with rapturous applause, İmamoğlu’s main theme at the March 1 event was the need to steel Istanbul itself — a city of 16 million people — against the impact of the “next one” that could flatten the city.

“Unfortunately, February 6, 2023 was the beginning,” İmamoğlu told the throng before him at an upscale convention center looking out over the Bosphorus from the heart of Istanbul, referring to the quake that killed over 45,000 people in southeastern Turkey.

But the beginning of what exactly? No discussion of earthquake preparedness is simply a matter of seismology and building materials. National politics now centers on the calamitous death toll. Why wasn’t more done to protect against it? Why did so many new builds collapse? What is the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling party and the contractors who profited from the construction boom?

In Istanbul, a sprawling, varied microcosm of the country, the political atmosphere has become intensely more febrile in the wake of the disaster. Police are more visible, particularly in some of the city’s secular bastions like Kadıköy, which are traditionally hostile to Erdoğan’s brand of religious conservatism.

Seeking to smother dissent, Erdoğan has intensified his long-standing crackdown on social media — more than 100 people who have posted offensive comments have recently been detained, and Ekşi Sözlük, a popular forum, has been banned.

But people are still talking. The earthquake, and the government’s responsibility for the damage, is the main topic on buses, in coffee houses and bars, on the street and in soccer stadiums — even in the home stadium of Fenerbahçe, Erdoğan’s favorite team.

In late February, Fenerbahçe fans turned on the president who has supported the club for years. “Twenty years of lies and cheating, resign!” they chanted. The government responded by banning the team’s fans from attending a national match — and is now floating the idea of playing games with empty stadiums.

Erdoğan consolidates his base

But amid the repression and anger, it will be hard to reset Turkey’s deep political divisions — divisions Erdoğan has capitalized on for decades — making him a kind of Islamist forerunner to former United States President Donald Trump and his battle against America’s cosmopolitan elites. However, Erdoğan does appear to be more vulnerable than ever beforeö not only because of the earthquake but also because of double*digit inflation and unease about his increased centralization of powers around himself and his cliques.

Many AKP voters see Erdoğan as a liberator — the man who brought roads, schools and hospitals to previously neglected shantytowns and rural outposts — largely because of his passion for construction | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

“Under normal circumstances, this government should have been under the rubble politically after the earthquake, but instead it is on the offensive,” says Soli Özel, a veteran political analyst at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “There’s a bombardment of propaganda; they are sending imams to the region [affected by the earthquake] as well as funds. The latest polls show that the earthquake has consolidated the party bases instead of decreasing political divisions.”

In fact, Özer Sencar, the founder of Metropoll, one of Turkey’s leading polling companies, said that while Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost ground since the earthquake, it did so far less than expected. Sencar’s research shows that the AKP fell 4 points in February, retreating to its loyal base of 30 percent, while the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — the main secular opposition party — also lost support, sliding down 2 points to 20 percent.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s alliance maintained a lead of some 7 percentage points over the combined opposition — more if undecided voters are proportionally distributed.

According to Metropoll’s surveys, 39 percent of AKP supporters blame construction companies and 20 percent blame municipalities for the terrible death toll. Just 11 percent blame the government. 

“The government base sees earthquakes as God’s will, or holds construction groups and local municipalities responsible,” Sencar said. “There is a good chance that the government might not lose a considerable amount of votes.”  

That is also the impression voters give in Fatih, a traditionally conservative neighborhood of Istanbul, where people seem to be content with the government’s response. 

“I believe Turkey will get over this,” said Şeyma Karakaş, a volunteer for the IHH, a charity close to the government that has taken a leading role in providing aid to the southeast. “Our state is very strong . . . From day one, the government was present in the region.”

Yüsra Türk, a 20-year-old student nurse who was preparing to pray at the Fatih mosque, said the fact that the earthquake hit 10 cities in the region made it very hard for the government to manage the disaster. No government in the world, she argued, could have responded in a perfect way.

Her friend Merve Duru Ocaktan, a student dentist, added that the scary things she read on social media were mostly lies against the government. 

Both students said they would vote for the AKP again, despite the earthquake. 

“As long as the AKP is in power, there is still hope for us,” Ocaktan said. “If the opposition comes to power, we might lose our rights about the headscarf, education and scholarships.” 

Many AKP voters see Erdoğan as a liberator — the man who brought roads, schools and hospitals to previously neglected shantytowns and rural outposts — largely because of his passion for construction. He also cleared the way for pious Turks to play a bigger role in national life, battling against restrictions put in place by the country’s old secular elite — most notably on women wearing the headscarf, who were previously banned from many public sector jobs.

Billboards on the Bosphorus

The government is currently running a massive communication campaign, covering Istanbul with messages of unity and national mourning on billboards, posters and screens.

But national unity only goes so far. In Esenler, an AKP stronghold where support for the party topped 60 percent in the 2019 local elections, posters featuring the faces of two of the main opposition figures — CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu and his ally, Good Party leader Meral Akşener — had been defaced. The opposition’s presidential contender, Kılıçdaroğlu’s face was scratched out, while the eyes of the nationalist Akşener were gouged out. Erdoğan’s pictures remained intact.

A man walks in a destroyed neighborhood among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Hatay | Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

But here too Erdoğan’s support is sliding — though less than might be expected, and the opposition remains far behind.

Relaxing in an all-male tea house, Barış Balcı, a 21-year-old student X-ray technician who declined to give his real name, said he volunteered to go to Kahramanmaraş, the epicenter of the quake, with the Red Crescent, but added that the reality was far from what the pro-government media portrayed. 

“The government did not send aid to some places. There were no tents, no heaters, no water. Why did they not send the army to the region in the first place?” he asked. 

Balcı said his family still supports the AKP. He, however, is not going to vote for Erdoğan. In fact, he is not going to vote at all. 

His 21-year-old friend Bedirhan, whose family also supports the president, agreed. 

“Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are the same,” he said, referring to the opposition leader. “It is all talk, no action. We need someone who can solve the main problem of the country, building a merit-based system rather than only protecting their party’s people.” 

Necati Özkan, a communication strategist and adviser to Mayor İmamoğlu, argued that an economic crisis or such a devastating earthquake might not be enough for fundamental political change. He said that in autocratic regimes, despite big crises and disasters, change does not happen overnight. 

“The opposition needs a new narrative on how Turkey and its people’s lives might be better,” Özkan said. “The earthquake showed us the ground is ready for change, but this process is not going to be automatic.”

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