Organising elections in a disaster zone is difficult but Turkey is pressing ahead

The earthquake struck a region where all of the country's main political parties are competitive

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a decree announcing that general national elections will he held on May 14. Turkish law says the only circumstances in which any national vote can be postponed is if the country is at war. AFP
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Last week, it became official: the number killed in February’s earthquakes in Turkey alone crossed the 50,000 mark.

For the survivors, the healing will take weeks and months – if it happens at all. Many will simply never recover from the anguish that has plagued their lives.

Yet in just a few short weeks, they will be asked to vote. That brevity is important for three reasons.

First, the authorities have made few special provisions for earthquake survivors. Second, there is a small but serious risk of fraud in the form of dead people casting ballots. And third, the earthquake struck one of the most electorally competitive areas in the country and every vote can make a difference.

Let’s consider the management of the election first. As far as the authorities are concerned, voting day on Sunday, May 14 will be like any other. But the survivors’ ordeal will still be raw.

Rubble will still be heaped in places where apartment blocks once stood. Their surviving inhabitants will still be sheltering from the elements inside canvas tents or prefabricated units. The devastation means it is still not clear how many schools are safe enough to use as polling stations.

The voters themselves will be difficult to trace: some are in temporary housing; others have relocated to other parts of the country. And with human remains still being excavated each day, we still do not know for certain what the death toll is.

These are difficult conditions in which to organise an election. Yet it is going ahead. Turkish law says the only circumstances in which any national vote can be postponed is if the country is at war. Natural disasters, however devastating, are not sufficient cause for a delay.

People wait in line to withdraw money from a mobile bank at Samandag, Hatay province, Turkey on Tuesday. Hatay was one of the areas worst hit by the February earthquake. AFP

The rules do make some allowances for people whose personal circumstances make it difficult to vote. Those who are physically disabled, for example, can ask a relative or another voter at the polling station to help them complete their ballot paper. Anyone who is bedridden and cannot travel to their polling station at all can apply for a so-called roving ballot box to visit them at home. But that service exists only in towns and cities, and not the more remote villages – of which quite a few exist in the disaster zone.

Many survivors, however, will be those who simply moved to another part of the country and no special provisions have been made for them. They have until the beginning of April to tell their authorities what their new address is.

Some will inevitably be disenfranchised. For those who can vote, their ballots will be counted in the province they currently live and not in the place their home was before the earthquakes struck.

This is where my second point – the risk of fraud – comes in: it is entirely possible for someone to present themselves at a polling station on May 14 bearing the identity of someone who perished. That’s because we still do not know for sure how many people were killed.

The official number of dead has been ticking up slowly, but there is conflicting information about the number still missing due to the sheer scale of the disaster. The chief of the bar association in Izmir, a city some distance away from the disaster zone, estimates as many as 180,000 voters are still unaccounted for.

The biggest question of all is how earthquake survivors are likely to vote

Again, Turkish law does make some provision for situations such as this. Voters cannot change their address after April 3, but electorate lists are updated up to the week before election day to remove voters who have passed away. Valid identification is required before ballots can be cast at a polling station. And identity fraud is a crime that carries a 15 to 20-year prison sentence.

But the reality is that much will depend on the representatives of government and opposition political parties stationed at the ballot boxes themselves. They will have to spend many hours beadily watching every voter who walks through the door and every vote they cast.

Those ballots represent my third point. The biggest question of all is how earthquake survivors are likely to vote.

The disaster zone is a region that coves 11 provinces and was – before February 6 – home to more than 6 million people. They return 96 MPs, about one sixth of parliament. By grim coincidence, the earthquake struck a region where all of Turkey’s main political parties are competitive.

Much like the country as a whole, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s movement is the dominant force. In five provinces, his Justice and Development Party secured more than half the vote in the most recent elections. The president is personally popular too. In Kahramanmaras, the epicentre of both earthquakes, he took three quarters of the vote at the last election. It is a similar picture in socially conservative places such as Malatya and Sanliurfa.

But the story is different in Hatay, perhaps the worst affected of all the provinces, where Mr Erdogan’s AK Party triumphed only narrowly at the last parliamentary election and lost the local mayoralty to an opposition candidate. And in 2019, opposition parties banded together to take control of the local government in Adana, a city of more than 2 million.

The disaster zone is a political microcosm of the country: Mr Erdogan and the AK Party have made their presence felt everywhere for the past two decades, but parties representing the centre-left, opposition-minded nationalists, religious conservatives and Kurds are all in with a shout.

What is impossible to predict is how earthquake survivors will vote and whether the government’s response to the disaster will influence their decision.

But barely a dozen weeks separate Turkey’s worst natural disaster of modern times from its most consequential election in living memory. On May 14, most of the affected electorate will still have their ordeal on their minds as they cast their votes.

Published: March 30, 2023, 2:00 PM