ANTAKYA, Turkey—The only road heading into the center of Turkey’s southern Hatay province is already packed with traffic jams as people pour back in to vote in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Read more of FP’s coverage of Turkey’s pivotal elections.
Out of the roughly 1.1 million registered voters in the province, around 400,000 left when several earthquakes devastated the province in February. Now they are coming back, even if just for a day—and many say it’s explicitly to vote out Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They might get good news on Sunday, when the election results could be clear, or a little later if there is a runoff vote, but for now, in the provincial capital of Antakya, there’s little on offer but heartbreak.
Up to 85 percent of the downtown either collapsed or will have to be demolished, according to the Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers, and much of the infrastructure is out of commission: Many roads are closed, most shops remain shut, and bathroom facilities are scarce. More than 23,000 people were killed in Hatay—the highest provincial death count out of the almost 60,000 overall fatalities—and some registered voters are still missing to this day.
“We are angry, we are devastated, and we want political change,” said Ibrahim Kaja, a 26-year-old voter who traveled two hours from Adana back to Antakya, where his house lies in rubble. Kaja lost nine family members to the Feb. 6 quake, including his younger sister and older brother, who was living just below him in the same house; his brother had a wife and three children. Kaja’s niece died immediately, but he managed to dig out his 12-year-old nephew, Hisamettin, from under the rubble three days after the earthquake, only to watch him die in the car on the way to the hospital. The brother’s third child—another boy—lived but lost a leg. Kaja is adamant that if rescue teams had arrived earlier, four of his family members, including Hisamettin, could have been saved, and he largely blames their deaths on the government.
“Erdogan can never make up for this. If he’s back in power, I’ll leave the country,” Kaja said. All his remaining family members were headed in from Adana to cast their votes for opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is running neck and neck with Erdogan in the polls. Kilicdaroglu may have gotten a boost with the last-minute withdrawal by another presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, who could have leached votes from the opposition.
Sunday’s vote is the toughest fight Erdogan will face in his 20-odd years in power. His mismanagement of the economy had already soured plenty of voters this time around. But years of corruption in the construction industry, which many believe contributed to the massive death toll in February’s earthquakes, won him newfound enmity in hard-hit areas such as Hatay. The question isn’t as much whom those people will vote for as how they will be able to vote at all.
“We’re awaiting chaos on election day,” said Akin Parlak, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) head for Hatay’s Defne district. “There’s no accommodation, no food, not enough toilets. Voters won’t be able to avoid traffic jams—many will be retraumatized.”
Still, Antakya, one of Turkey’s more liberal and somewhat secular bubbles, is determined to vote, even though it might just be in the toughest province to make this happen.
Inal Buyukasik, the head of the Chamber of Civil Engineers in Antakya, isn’t optimistic. “After the earthquake, it took almost three weeks to evacuate the city because there’s only one way out. We didn’t receive immediate help after the quake for similar reasons. I worry that many people won’t be able to reach the city and will instead be stuck in traffic jams until polling stations close. You’ve seen the road—it’s narrow. There are no evacuation routes. People take voting very seriously here, but circumstances might just prevent them from doing so,” he said.
Kaja’s family could have registered to vote elsewhere in Turkey, but the deadline to do so passed just weeks after the Feb. 6 earthquake. Between burying family members, trying to save a few belongings from their collapsed homes, and finding temporary shelter, registration wasn’t on their radar. The opposition tried to push for remote polling stations to be set up, but their calls were largely ignored.
So, just days from the May 14 election date, millions of people might be making their way back home. Around 9 million people throughout 11 provinces have been displaced by the earthquakes, and their votes could decisively sway the election.
“Currently, about 4,000-5,000 people are returning to Hatay daily, and we estimate that around 200,000 voters have already made it back. We’re coordinating buses to bring back another 25,000, and on election day, we expect that around 100,000 people will be traveling to Hatay just for the day, just to vote,” said the CHP’s Parlak.
Antakya is CHP territory, he said. Any lost votes would be a potential boon to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which is why so many are taking desperate measures to get to the polls.
Meanwhile, rebuilding has already started in Antakya, potentially good news for those who have been living in tents but still worrisome to architects. “This year’s earthquake hasn’t been researched enough, and even though new homes are constructed to earthquake-proof standards, they might not be safe for Hatay and the types of earthquakes we experience here,” said Mustafa Ozcelik, the head of the local Chamber of Architects. “We’ve seen the collapse of houses built to standard, and this exactly shows that more ground studies need to be conducted first.” He also wants to see Antakya rebuilt, not as a money-grubbing exercise for politicians in power but to preserve what locals boast is a diverse mosaic of cultures and peoples, including Alawis, Armenians, Jews, Christians, and Turks.
Ayfer Temiz wants just that, and she’s one of the few who has remained in Antakya throughout the disaster’s aftermath.
“We lost everything in the earthquake and received little help in return. I’m hoping for a new leader to get Turkey back on its feet. Kilicdaroglu will give us hope,” the 43-year-old said from the green spring garden where she’s currently staying with her three siblings, her husband, and her 6-year old daughter. Temiz lost her house and her parents to the quake.
“When the shaking stopped, we shouted their names into the dark, but there was no response. When the sun came up, we dug them out dead,” Temiz said. “We didn’t bury them immediately but waited for a day for rescue teams to arrive to guide us in the process and make sure we have all legal documents sorted. But no one came. We ended up digging the graves.”
Temiz has been living in a government-donated tent since February, and she says she’s expecting to see a lot of her friends this weekend, traveling in to vote from all across Turkey, even from as far away as Istanbul.
She admits that the trauma and pressure over the past months have been almost unbearable, but she never considered temporary relocation. “I figured it would be more difficult to leave and set up elsewhere. This is home—here, we share pain and hope. This weekend, we’re hoping for a new president.”