Ayse Kekec, an earthquake survivor living in a tent with her son, stands in front of their tent with a poster of Turkish President Erdogan on it, in Kahramanmaras, Turkey May 11, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

ANKARA: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party came out on top in Sunday’s elections in 10 of the 11 provinces hit by February’s earthquakes, with analysts saying his vow to rebuild devastated cities had reassured voters in what are mostly AKP strongholds.

The ruling party’s strong showing, defying initial expectations in February that the quakes would hurt its support, was also driven by doubts about the opposition’s ability to meet voters’ expectations.

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Nationwide, the Islamist-rooted AKP won a new parliamentary majority with its alliance partners, while Erdogan, 69, led comfortably in the presidential vote ahead of a runoff with his main rival on May 28.

The powerful earthquakes on February 6 killed more than 50,000 people and left millions homeless in Turkey, causing destruction across 11 provinces from Adana near the Mediterranean coast to Diyarbakir in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

Despite the huge toll of deaths and injuries and mass migration afterwards, voter turnout was still very high in the region, at between 85-89 per cent in most of the 11 provinces and above 80 per cent in the others. The nationwide average was 88.9 per cent.

Many Turks who fled the region returned to vote.

Kurdish voters in the region came out strongly in support of Erdogan’s main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in the presidential race, but the president was still ahead in voting in eight of the affected provinces.

Kilicdaroglu, 74, was clearly ahead in two provinces and in the worst-hit province of Hatay, they each got 48 per cent support, with the opposition leader marginally ahead.

Erdogan, and his wife Emine prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station in Istanbul, on May 14, 2023. Image Credit: AP


Critics and earthquake survivors had expressed anger over a slow initial quake response by Erdogan’s government and lax enforcement of building rules - failures they said cost lives.

But dozens of people Reuters spoke to soon after the quake were thankful for the aid of the government and security forces, while also complaining that they had arrived late. Interviews since then provided little evidence that the issue would change how people voted.

Ebrahim Kadir Demir, who lost his daughter and grandchildren in the earthquake, said he was happy with government services, adding: “I wish our president had won outright (in the first round).” Erdogan’s AKP has prioritised construction during its 20 years in power and this has helped to drive growth.

Pollster Mehmet Ali Kulat said the opposition alliance had failed to win over enough voters and they had ultimately put their faith in the government to improve their plight.

“Earthquake survivors had seriously criticised the government response in polls and they said they would not vote for them. But these people were also looking for an answer to the question of who ‘will rebuild my house, who will re-build my workplace?’” Kulat said.

“They see that it is Erdogan who can do this. This is one of the most important factors,” he added.

Rival faces uphill struggle

Meanwhile, Turkey’s secular opposition leader who may have succeeded in forcing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into his first ever runoff, but his chances of winning are remote.

Kilicdaroglu was predicted to perform well in Sunday’s first round but ended up with just under 45 per cent while Erdogan fell fractionally short of the 50-per cent threshold required for an outright victory.

His six-party alliance now needs to accomplish seemingly impossible electoral gymnastics to unseat Erdogan, who needs just a sliver of extra support to extend his two decades in power to 2028.

Kilicdaroglu waves to supporters at a polling station in Ankara. Image Credit: AP

“The second round will be easier for us,” Erdogan spokesman Ebrahim Kalin said on Tuesday. “There is a difference of five points, close to 2.5 million votes. It seems there is no possibility of this closing.”

Mobilising more young voters could boost Kilicdaroglu’s prospects, with polls suggesting he will win that group by a two-to-one margin.

More than five million first-time voters - who grew up knowing no leader other than Erdogan - were eligible to vote on Sunday and are deemed more likely to want change.

Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant, tried to revive his campaign on Tuesday with a message targeted at young people.

“You can’t afford anything. You even have to think about a cup of coffee. Your joy of life has stolen, whereas youth is carefree,” he said on Twitter.

“They didn’t give you that even for a day.”

Kurds: a double-edged sword?

Kurds, a minority ethnic group representing around 10 per cent of the electorate, may also come out stronger in favour of Kilicdaroglu.

The opposition leader, himself an Alevi Kurd who represents one of Turkey’s most repressed communities, was endorsed by the pro-Kurdish HDP party in late April.

But Sunday’s turnout in Kurdish-majority provinces was believed to hover around 80 per cent - well below the national average of almost 89 per cent.

Greater Kurdish support may also be a double-edged sword that makes Kilicdaroglu’s bid for power near impossible.

“On balance, Kilicdaroglu’s electoral alliance with pro-Kurdish HDP hurt him,” said Washington Institute analyst Soner Cagaptay.

“Some HDP voters in Kurdish-majority provinces stayed home on election day, while some Turkish nationalist voters abandoned Kilicdaroglu, admonishing him for allying with the HDP.”