An earthquake devastated Turkey. Can its strongman leader survive the aftershock?

Bedi Değirmenci has taken his first breaths of fresh air since a monster earthquake struck southeast Turkey three months ago.

For three days, the 36-year-old lay trapped under the rubble of his home in Hatay. Then he was hospitalized for traumas to the head and spine, and discharged only on Wednesday, just days before the country’s historic May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Deep gashes frame the right side of Bedi’s face and he now walks with a permanent limp. When he reunites with the few relatives who survived the quake, the air fills with a crescendo of sobs — the grief of bereavement infused with relief over Bedi’s recovery. 

The earthquake killed Bedi’s wife, his parents-in-law, his two daughters and their cousin. The children were 4, 5 and 6 years old. Two other children from the wider family also lost their lives.

For his tragedy, Bedi blames the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is battling for a third term, buffeted by economic headwinds and criticism that the impact of the February 6 earthquake was made worse by lax building controls and a shambolic rescue effort.  

The earthquake claimed more than 50,000 lives in Turkey and neighboring Syria, and displaced more than 6 million people. The state’s emergency workers were all but absent in many parts of the disaster area during the first few days that followed.  

For three days, Bedi’s relative – Caner Değirmenci – sledgehammered a path to the destroyed family home in Hatay. Just over 72 hours later, he and the Italian rescue team, Vigili del Fuoco, rescued Bedi and recovered the lifeless bodies of his wife and two daughters.   

“For the first 48 hours under the rubble, my daughter Talya was alive. We were talking together constantly,” says Bedi. “Then suddenly, she stopped speaking.    

“What happened was not a disaster. It was murder.”  

The day after the earthquake, Erdogan berated critics of the government’s botched earthquake response. Days later, the government admitted that the rescue effort had fallen short and issued a public apology.

Criticism of the government soon became dominated by the issue of building standards, which have been relaxed since Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power. In the weeks after the quake, the government rounded up dozens of contractors, construction inspectors and project managers for violating construction rules.

Critics dismissed the arrests as scapegoating. Relaxed building regulations were at the heart of the construction boom that turbocharged Erdogan’s 20-year rule, they argued, and the aftermath of the earthquake serves as an indictment of the country’s strongman leader.

Yet in the Erdogan strongholds that pepper the earthquake zone of southeast Turkey, those criticisms may have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Polls give the opposition coalition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu a slight national lead over Erdogan (earthquake zone polling data is hard to come by). Kılıçdaroğlu may be boosted further by the late withdrawal from the race of a minor candidate, Muharrem Ince. But at least one pollster, Can Selcuki from Istanbul Economics Research, says that the government’s earthquake response has done little to sway voters.

“This is the most tense moment I have seen in Turkish society,” said Asli Aydıntaşbaş, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. ”(The elections) are going to be about the future direction of the country and two radically different visions of where Turkey will go. And the opposition is galvanized.”  

For Aydıntaşbaş, the earthquake may have entrenched those deep divisions. Opposition-leaning communities are angrier than ever at Erdogan, while his support base has embraced the ruling party’s main talking point: mistakes were made at the beginning and now only Erdogan can rebuild what was destroyed. 

“More than anything else, the earthquake consolidates the two sides,” said Aydıntaşbaş.  

A veneer of normalcy in Erdogan strongholds  

Outside her government-provided tent in Kahramanmaras, a headscarf-wearing middle-aged woman smiles furtively at passersby while she reads the Quran. Nuray Canpolat’s neighbors at the tent park appear to be in a jovial mood, singing pro-Erdogan chants and brandishing the ruling party’s flags.

Kahramanmaras is the epicenter of the earthquake and a conservative Erdogan powerbase. 

Nuray says she tried to hold out in her damaged apartment for weeks before she resigned herself to leaving.  “All I wish for is a home. But I know that since I’m only a tenant in my apartment, I’ll be one of the last to recover what I lost,” she says.

At first glance, Kahramanmaras seems to have rumbled back to life. Cars fill the streets, and people have flocked back to the main bazaars. Many here see this as proof that the government will deliver on promises to rebuild quickly. Erdogan campaign posters line the streets with the slogan: Right man, for the right time.  

Most of the buildings here are either destroyed or too dangerous to live in. Tent parks pepper the hillside city, which boasts picturesque mountain views.  

“I will of course vote for President Erdogan,” Nuray says, her hand covering her blackened teeth as she smiles. “People make mistakes and you’ve got to love people despite their mistakes.  

“First, God saves us. Then our President Erdogan saves us.” 

That appeal to faith in the Turkish leader echoes throughout the city. For many here, the slow earthquake response and recent financial crisis – which caused prices to soar and the currency to plummet – pale in comparison to Erdogan’s achievements in the first half of his two-decade rule.  

The early years of Erdogan’s leadership saw millions lifted out of poverty. He scrapped secularist policies that repressed expressions of faith, such as the banning of the hijab in universities. Erdogan’s combative foreign policy has endowed Turkey with a muscular posture, his supporters argue, even if his international adventurism was perceived as reckless at times.

Many here say that they must repay a debt to him with loyalty that not even a massive earthquake could shake.

“Is there any leader in any other country so loved as President Erdogan?” says one shopkeeper at the Kahramanmaras Bazaar. 

Another merchant chimes in: “There is no way he will lose this election. Tayyip, Tayyip, Tayyip all the way. He will get 60% of the vote.”  

Hanifi Güler, 53, says he lost 25 members of his extended family when a large apartment block collapsed in the quake. “The president thankfully said he would pay and I believe him,” he says. “The government has done the best it can do.”  

Yet there are a few dissenting voices. Hasan Bilir, a bearded elderly man who has always voted for Erdogan, says his trust in the president has hit its limits.  

“They see Erdogan as a saint. It’s too much. I survive on earthquake aid. I will vote for neither him nor the other candidate,” he says, referring to Kılıçdaroğlu.  

“This earthquake isn’t going to make anyone vote differently,” says 48-year-old Salih Yenikomşu, a jeweler and opposition supporter. “People believe in him and believe he is beyond reproach.”  

Beneath the veneer of normalcy here, the cracks are beginning to show. As night falls, the bustling marketplaces give way to food banks. Many merchants return not to their homes, but to tents or, if they’re lucky, a zinc container.  

One middle-aged man spits in the direction of an Erdogan poster. “I lost my wife, my son and my two grandsons,” he says. “I was a staunch supporter of the AK Party but now I spit on him. A lot of us do. 

“We trusted them just because they were Muslims.”  

One first-time voter, Ziya Kahveci, says he prefers to stay away from politics. He even raises the specter of “riots on election night.”  

“I have close friends who said that they’re going to take to the streets and riot if the governing party loses,” he says. 

Fears of violence have peaked in recent days after pro-government youth pelted an opposition rally with stones last weekend.  

“I cannot convince my friends to not take to the streets. They yell at me. I can’t even speak to them about the election. The polarization in this country is so deep,” he says. 

“On election night, I’m going to chain the door of both my apartment and the building.”  

Back in Hatay, where the vote is typically split between loyalists and secular opposition groups, the government’s presence is barely visible. The city is a ghost town with no building left unscathed. Ottoman-era arches protruding from heaps of rubble are the only remaining testaments to its rich history.  

New cemeteries outside the city stretch for hundreds of meters, mostly with unmarked graves. DNA samples are collected here to help family members identify thousands of people still unaccounted for.  

Sometimes, those burying the dead will leave clues. In Narlıca cemetery, the wooden plank on grave number 236 is draped with a white dress worn by a child who was not more than two years old. 

“We feel like the living dead. I feel like a balloon blowing in the wind,” says Meltem Canımoğlu, the sister-in-law of Bedi Değirmenci, who was stuck under the rubble in Hatay.

She still sends text messages to her dead parents. She lost her six-year-old son, too, as well as her sister, Bedi’s wife.  

Meltem’s husband, Ayhan, sits with a quiet dignity next to his weeping wife. He says he’s determined to take his grief to the ballot box and cast his vote for Kılıçdaroğlu. 

“The ballot box is the only way to hold officials to account,” he says. 

“We hope to slam the doors of hell shut.”  

This post appeared first on cnn.com