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Turkey’s earthquake survivors fear being left out of May general election


A man walks past a collapsed building in the quake-hit city of Kahramanmaraş on April 4, 2023, two months after the 7.8 magnitude devastating earthquake of February 6. Many blamed the government's stuttering response to Turkey's worst disaster of its modern era for a death toll that has now surpassed 50,000. OZAN KOSE / AFP

Ali, a 23-year-old student, lost everything in two earthquakes that struck Turkey in February.

His parents are missing, and his hometown of Antakya lies in ruins.

To fight back, Ali, who, like many survivors, declines to give his full name, has launched a drive to ensure that more than 3 million people displaced by the February disaster can vote in next month’s general election.

The May 14 ballot promises to be perilous for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a dominant leader forced into the unusual position of apologizing for his government’s response to Turkey’s worst disaster of modern times.

Rescuers and relief workers took days to reach some ravaged areas, creating a sense of abandonment and directing anger at officials for a death toll that has topped 50,000.

“It’s important to reflect this anger at the polls,” said Ali, who now lives in Ankara.

He launched an appeal on Twitter asking political parties to pay for the bus tickets of students who had to leave Antakya but want to return to cast their votes.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) party has pledged its support.

People who sought shelter in cities such as Ankara, İstanbul and Mersin on Turkey’s southern coast had until April 2 to register their new voting address.

Those who missed out have to return to their ruined cities to cast ballots.

Erdoğan’s opponents view the early deadline as a covert government effort to suppress the protest vote.

“People lost loved ones and everything that was precious to them. Most were in no condition to take care of their election registration,” said Ali Öztunç, a CHP deputy representing Kahramanmaraş, near the epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude quake.

‘Afraid of the victims’

Only 50,000 of the 820,000 registered voters in Kahramanmaras were able to change their registration, according to Öztunç, who estimates that half of the province’s residents have left.

That means hundreds of thousands will have to somehow find their way back to take part in what is widely seen as Turkey’s most important election in its post-Ottoman history.

“It is impossible to transport so many people,” said Öztunç.

“It would take thousands of buses, and that would create a giant traffic jam. No party can organize that.”

The CHP’s leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is the opposition’s joint candidate in the presidential election.

The party’s vice chairman, Onursal Adıgüzel, openly accuses officials of trying to tamp down turnout among the displaced.

“The authorities could have extended the deadline to assist with the registration,” Adıgüzel said.

“But they are afraid of the victims,” he said. “They are doing everything to hinder the vote.”

Forced to leave Kahramanmaraş, Abdullah, a father of two, said he was actively discouraged by civil servants from changing his registration address.

“I was told that I would lose my rights to public aid for earthquake victims,” Abdullah said at his temporary home in Ankara.

“So I kept my address in Kahramanmaraş. But I don’t know how I’ll be able to go there and vote.”

‘Free elections impossible’

At a shelter in the suburbs of Ankara, only 120 of the 525 displaced families had taken the necessary steps to change their legal address.

Eymen Gassaloğlu, 34, who lives at the shelter with her two daughters, was determined to return to Antakya on election day — even if it meant sleeping in a tent.

“It’s about my future,” said Gassaloğlu. “I’ll vote no matter what.”

Some said returning to the province would also give them a chance to monitor voting and report any irregularities.

Erdoğan’s critics fear that voting lists will include people who went missing but were not officially declared dead, creating room for manipulation by election officials.

“The authorities do not openly disclose the number of missing people. This is a concern,” Adıgüzel, the CHP vice chair, said.

Özgür Yusuf Kavukçu, 45, managed to register to vote in Ankara. But most of his friends will have to return to Antakya, a ghost town where just a tiny fraction of the buildings has survived unscathed.

“I think free elections are impossible under such conditions,” Kavukçu said.

“But there’s no other choice. We’ve already lost a lot with the earthquakes. Losing [our right to vote] would be another disaster.”

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