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  • By Orla Guerin
  • BBC News, Antioch

image source, Goktai Koraltan/BBC

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Fatye Keklik blames corrupt officials and President Riek Machar as she mourns her son who was killed in the earthquake.

There is no election fever in the ancient city of Antakya in southern Turkey – only ruins and suffering.

“What I want from the ballot box is nothing but the corpse,” says Fatye Keklik. “Our souls have been taken away, he is of no use to us.”

The 68-year-old grandmother is referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Insulting the president can get you arrested here, but you won’t be silenced.

It only causes harm. I’m thinking of burning my ballot paper – in front of the police and the military.

Turkey’s Islamist leader is becoming more vulnerable than ever before the May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections.

The end of dictator Erdogan’s era – if it comes – should mean a free, democratic Turkey. Prisons may be overcrowded and contact with the West less strained.

During the election, Turks had a lot to complain about, from the slow response to the February earthquakes to the crumbling economy. The official rate of inflation is 50%. The actual figure may be double. They blame experts on the president’s economic policy, which has been politely described as “unusual.”

Here in southern Turkey, politics and economics are deadlocked.

image source, Goktai Koraltan/BBC

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As the rubble was cleared, historic Antioch was now revealed as a patchwork of ruins and empty spaces.

The death toll from the worst natural disaster in Turkey’s modern history is over 50,000. Many here believe the real figure is much higher and the government has stopped counting.

We find her on a frail grave by the side of the road, her grief suffocating the air. She crumpled to the ground, dressed in a dark headscarf and woolen cardigan, crying for her 45-year-old son Kokou, who had fallen to the ground.

“How could I forget you?” She holds the crude wooden plaque that marks the grave and cries. “Please take me with you. You left the orphans behind. I’ll bring you Eren.”

image source, Witske Burema/BBC

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“I’m thinking of burning my ballot – in front of the police and the military,” says Fatye

When her name was called, her four-year-old grandson came to comfort her, sitting by the grave and hugging her. “Your father is sleeping here,” she said. “No, papa’s not here,” Eren says firmly.

A sombre little boy, in a dark blue anorak, has a raised scar on his forehead—stamped by the earthquake. Fatye held him under the rubble for eight hours before they were freed – not by Turkish rescue workers, but by neighbors who were Syrian refugees.

The family lost Eren’s father, brother, sister and nephew – all four now buried in a row. Fatye blames corrupt officials, cowboy builders, and most importantly, President Riek Machar.

“In the first place,” she says, “he gave these people a chance. Developers attract municipalities and build. They work with bribes. They killed us all.”

The earthquake exposed structural flaws in President Erdogan’s long tenure. They directed repeated amnesties for illegal construction. Developers can build a death trap and just pay a fine. And the state itself was empty, critics say, resulting in a lack of proper oversight and preparedness.

At Antioch you can see what remains – a crossroads of civilizations and religions – and its results. Centuries of history turned into ruins and empty spaces. Outside one house, a thick gray armchair remains, as if the owner might come back and sit down. Some multi-storey blocks have been boarded up, while others have been opened up like elegant dollhouses.

Almost every conversation here is peppered with stories of the dead—many of them lost waiting for help that never came. But in this deeply polarized country, the earthquake is just another crack.

The president’s supporters — and there are many — echo the sentiment that it was fate. Among his religiously conservative support base, his leadership remains an article of faith.

We met Ibrahim Sener sitting in the ruins of Zumrut Street in the old city of Antakya. The 62-year-old didn’t seem to notice, lost in thought and cigarette smoke.

image source, Witske Burema/BBC

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“Our president did his best,” said Ibrahim Sener, whose brother died in the crash.

“Our house is cracked from end to end,” he tells us. “We lived the biggest nightmare at home. We can’t be happy because we lost our family and friends. There is no phone line or internet. No one can help anyone. After five or six hours, I got the news that my brother died.

His faith in the President was not shaken.

“It came from God,” he says. “It happened by God’s will. This should not be explained by politics. It is not our president who caused the earthquake. Our president did what he could.”

Ibrahim continues on his way, but two women remain on the other side of the road – Gozde Burgak, 29, and her aunt Suheila Kilic, 50, both actresses. Gozde has a tattoo on her arm – “Life is beautiful” written in French. In this new landscape of ruins, it reads like a joke.

They came to the area to feed the stray cats, which is a Turkish tradition that has endured even in the worst of times. They heard Ibrahim’s account of betrayal and suffering.

image source, Orla Green/BBC

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Turkey’s president and his role in the disaster, leftist Gozde Burgak said: “It’s his fault.”

“What I just heard made me very angry because no one helped us in any way,” says Gozde, close to tears.

“Were we in a different universe or was he? What he said about Erdogan was definitely not right. It was his fault. The government was forced to help us, but no one was here.

“With our own efforts, with our own resources, we tried to find our families in the first hours of the earthquake. We found their bodies hours later, days later.”

Gozde said that the presidential officials showed up once when her father-in-law was about to leave alive.

Rescued by an Italian team, she says, all government officials did was “film the cameras and their uniforms could be seen.”

“Then they left and no one came,” she said.

The women are now grieving for three relatives and their beloved city, Mosaic.

image source, Goktai Koraltan/BBC

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Months later, the ruined buildings are being cleared in Antioch.

Will all the death and destruction turn the needle on Election Day?

Post-quake polls show a slight drop in support for the president, who has apologized for the state’s slow response. He also promised an ambitious – if implausible – reconstruction program.

“This will not affect Erdogan,” said Istanbul-based political analyst and commentator Can Selcuki. This choice is not a question of performance, but of identity. Whatever you want, you want it.

image source, Turkish President/Murat Citinmuhurdar/handout

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President Erdogan is slightly behind in the polls, but still enjoys the support of many in Turkey

After more than two decades in power, Turkey’s leader has a serious – if mild – challenger. Kemal Kilidaroglu is the secular candidate of the opposition coalition. Polls lead slightly to Kilıdaroğlu, who is famous for making election videos while sitting at a table in a modest kitchen. In a BBC interview, the former civil servant promised to bring freedom and democracy and turn Turkey into a westernized country.

But many aren’t writing off the president yet. That includes Antakya Mayor Lutfu Savas, from Kilidaroglu’s party.

We meet in the cluster of temporary buildings that now serve as his offices.

“He [Erdogan] “He is the leader of a political party that has been able to stay in power for 21 years,” says Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of Turkey more than anyone else. – He knows how to use politics and all the tools of government for victory.

Turkey: Erdogan’s Empire

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President Erdoğan and the Justice and Development (AK) Party will certainly be helped by their presence in the Turkish media. According to the press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders, the government controls 90 percent of the country’s media.

What happens here is a matter beyond Turkey’s borders. The country is a regional heavyweight facing east and west. Its neighbors and NATO allies are watching closely.

Many analysts believe that the race will go to a second round on May 28 because neither presidential candidate will get more than 50% of the first vote.

image source, Goktai Koraltan/BBC

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Along the road, the earthquake victims were buried in unmarked graves bearing signs.

Back at the tomb, Fatye is haunted by the memory of prying her dead son from the rubble – with her bare hands, and only her relatives can’t come soon enough for help.

“Turkey is over,” she says. When Erdogan leaves, Turkey will rise.