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Turkey's election becomes a referendum on the response to an earthquake


Elections in Turkey are less than two months away, and that timing is awkward for the president, who would like another term. People have criticized the government's recent response to an earthquake. NPR's Fatma Tanis has been asking how the catastrophe might influence the vote.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: On a sunny afternoon in the walled historic district of the city of Diyarbakir, crowds hang around outside a mosque after prayers. Many have nowhere else to go. Their homes were damaged in the earthquakes, and they spend days outdoors and nights in tents. One of them is 36-year-old Sukran, who only gave her first name to speak about the government's response, as some have faced arrest for criticizing it.

SUKRAN: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, we are not getting help. The Red Crescent relief used to give out food, but now that stopped, too.

TANIS: Diyarbakir is Turkey's largest Kurdish-majority city. Four hundred people died here in the earthquakes. Two thousand buildings were damaged. But Sukran says because other cities are so much worse, people here have been overlooked.

SUKRAN: (Through interpreter) May God have mercy on all our dead everywhere. But we have survivors here, and we need to help them.

TANIS: At a coffee house nearby, 48-year-old Firat Kaymak is sitting with friends. As they smoke cigarettes and sip Turkish coffee, he recalls the night of the quakes.

FIRAT KAYMAK: (Through interpreter) I've never felt fear like that in my life. It was as though someone had picked up our building and was shaking it hard.

TANIS: Many of his friends are fired up about politics now. They noticed that government buildings, including housing for lower-income families, stayed intact while hundreds of thousands of others were damaged due to shoddy construction. Many contractors have been arrested, but Kaymak says it's not enough.

KAYMAK: (Through interpreter) Clearly, the government knows how to build its own property well. But they couldn't bother regulating all the other ones. I feel abandoned. We all feel abandoned.

TANIS: Turkey's disaster management agency and overall government institutions have suffered a great blow to their reputation, says Vahap Coskun. He's a political analyst and professor of law here at Dicle University. He says people saw loved ones die under the rubble as they waited for rescue teams that arrived too late. And, Coskun says, they know exactly where to point the blame.

VAHAP COSKUN: (Through interpreter) All of the government decision-making comes from one place, from one person. And this extremely centralized system was effectively crushed by the earthquake.

TANIS: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on the ballot May 14. But many see the election as a vote on a change he pushed through five years ago. He held a referendum to replace the country's parliamentary system with an executive presidency, giving him sweeping powers and control. Now many people believe that the lack of checks and balances hollowed out government institutions, allowing corruption and dysfunction that made the government less responsive to disasters, as well as the poor economy.

COSKUN: (Through interpreter) This election will be about more than the candidates. It's actually a serious referendum. Do we want this system of executive presidency to continue or not?

TANIS: The Kurdish vote has often been split between Erdogan and rival parties, meaning the people here could play a pivotal role in Turkey's future. Back in the old city, Firat Kaymak says, for him, the earthquake was the last drop in the bucket.

KAYMAK: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: "Something has to change in this country," he says. "Otherwise, our homes will remain coffins."

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Diyarbakir, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.