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Wrecked by Turkey’s powerful earthquakes, Antakya prepares to vote

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The Şimşeks have spent months huddling in tents next to their old home, laid to waste by Turkey’s catastrophic quake.

How they vote Sunday could prove decisive to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s future.

Amid the wreckage of ancient Antakya, a mountain-rimmed cradle of civilization on Turkey’s border with Syria, grandfather Suphi Şimşek, his daughter-in-law Dilber and granddaughter Özlem all intend to cast ballots.

“Voting in the middle of the rubble isn’t a joyful experience but we want the government to change,” said Dilber, her sleeves rolled up while she scrubbed a cooking pot.

“Look, it’s been three months and nothing has changed! They want to make us pay taxes for our building, where we can’t live anymore,” she told AFP.

The 48-year-old mother hinted that she would back Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the secular opposition leader who is primed to break Erdoğan’s 21-year grip on power in the knife-edge vote.

Democracy amid destruction

The damage inflicted by the 7.8-magnitude tremor that struck southeastern Turkey on February 6 has left much of Antakya unrecognizable.

Row upon row of dilapidated buildings, long emptied of their inhabitants, pile up, giving Antakya the air of a ghost town.

Hundreds of other structures were completely erased, with only a tangled mess of crushed plastic, bent metal strips and the odd concrete slab left behind.

More than 50,000 earthquake victims have been identified in Turkey, but the real figure is believed to be higher, while an estimated three million people were internally displaced.

The authorities have had to improvise to hold the elections. Neither Erdoğan nor his rival held formal campaign rallies in Antakya’s Hatay province after the quake.

Some 167 containers have been transported to Antakya and some of its suburbs in recent days to provide polling booths for tens of thousands of voters, with many schools usually used as polling centers damaged or destroyed.

Buses have been flocking to Antakya to transport displaced residents wanting to take part in the elections, with more than one million voters registered in Hatay province.

Posters bearing Kılıçdaroğlu’s face have been hung on bus stops and near roundabouts, but not a single Erdoğan portrait could be seen.

Erdoğan won a first-round victory in the last presidential election in 2018 but only took 48.5 percent of the vote in Hatay, four points below the national average.

‘We have to believe’

The government came under fierce criticism for its response to the disaster, and the president’s promise to swiftly rebuild 200,000 homes in Hatay rings hollow for Özlem Şimşek.

“Turkey has received loads of foreign donations, so why despite all that do I have to get into debt for my new home?” the 27-year-old said as she puffed on a cigarette.

Mehmet, a man in his 30s who lives with his wife in a tent near the Şimşeks, thinks Erdoğan’s commitment to build homes is part of a “strategy” to deflect blame for his government’s initial failings.

Suphi also doubts whether Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu will be able to fulfil their pledges to rebuild Antakya.

“But we have to believe. No matter who wins, all we want is that our buildings and our city are reconstructed,” he told AFP in front of his tent.

Mehmet saw a positive side to election fever hitting Antakya after the trauma of the past three months.

“People are focused on the campaign, they’re not thinking about the rest,” said Mehmet, who declined to give his surname because “any kind of political comment can create problems in Turkey.”

“The elections are like the Olympic Games here, the excitement is stronger than the tragedy.”


© Agence France-Presse

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