Lütfü Savaş, the mayor of the earthquake-hit southern province of Hatay, has been among the figures under fire due to his subsequent statements on the disaster.
Savaş, who called on the people to be understanding about failures in humanitarian aid on the grounds of the enormity of the 6 February disaster, has particularly angered opposition voters in the past two weeks.
“He is an idealist. If the municipality thoroughly investigates the people who built this place, we will ruin them,” Savaş said of the contractor of the 12-storey Rönesans Residence which completely collapsed after the earthquake, with hundreds dying as a result.
Savaş’s rush to defend the arrested contractor of the building, advertised years ago as “a piece of paradise with the highest construction standards”, angered many opposition voters as well as senior figures of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Voters have been calling on the CHP to expel Savaş, but the party has taken no action so far, however, there are rumours that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, has asked Savaş to resign.
Meanwhile, earthquake survivors in Hatay have also severely criticised Savaş. One of these was Mehmet Ali Gümüş, an actor, who has lost many relatives in the province.
“You have been the mayor for 15 years,” wrote Gümüş on Twitter about Savaş. “You have not built even a single road in the city as you were too busy distributing funds to your immediate circle. Resign immediately,” he said on Twitter.
“Instead of defending the builders of Rönesans, you should have protected the footballer of the club where you serve as the honorary president,” said the manager of Christian Atsu, a Ghanaian Hatayspor player who lost his life in the earthquake.
“It has been 11 days, you have not called even a single person, you have not come anywhere near the wreckage,” he said, while efforts were still ongoing to rescue Atsu.
Savaş has had a very interesting political career, which tells a lot about the situation of Turkish politics in the past decade, during which the removal of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from office and victory over his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become the only target of the opposition parties. Though this aim is quite understandable, in practice it has led at times to alliances of strange bedfellows, undermining political ideals.
Born in Hatay, Lütfü Savaş is the son of a family of Turkmen origin. The politician has a nationalist-conservative background and is a medical doctor.
Savaş, who defines himself as having nationalist tendencies, resigned in 2009 from Mustafa Kemal University where he was serving as advisor to the chancellor, to run as the AKP’s mayoral candidate in Antakya, the capital city of the southern province of Hatay, and won the race.
The multi-ethnic Hatay province has been enormously affected by the civil war in Syria that started in 2011. Hatay, which is home to Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Armenians and has a significant Alevi population, is like a small version of Syria. Many people in Hatay have relatives living in Syria and they have been closely engaged with the conflict in the country from the beginning.
Moreover, the flow of Syrian refugees into the province, particularly those who are members of the jihadist rebel groups in Syria, has triggered the ethnic fault lines there. The policy of the AKP allowing the refugees angered its supporters, who have nationalist backgrounds, and political alliances in the province shifted as a result.
In such an environment, the AKP preferred to run Sadullah Ergin, the former minister of justice, as mayoral candidate instead of Savaş in the 2014 local elections. In response to this, Savaş resigned from the AKP, ran as the CHP’s candidate and won the elections by 41 percent of the vote. While Savaş continued his career as an opposition mayor and was elected once more in 2019, Ergin resigned from the AKP. Ergin, who is now a member of the DEVA Party founded by Ali Babacan, lost his two sisters in the earthquake.
Many protested against Savaş being chosen as a mayoral candidate by the CHP in 2014, as the politician had only a year before defined the Gezi protests as an event organised by a few marginal groups. In Hatay, two people, Abdullah Cömert and Ahmet Atakan, both Alevis, were killed in the protests, and Ali İsmail Korkmaz, a 19-year-old boy beaten to death by police and civilians in Eskişehir, was buried in his home town in Hatay.
Savaş was prosecuted in 2005 for keeping a record of his colleagues according to their ethnicity, religious beliefs and ideological preferences while an academic at Mustafa Kemal University. The then-medical doctor in his defence had accused some CHP members of planting those records in his case file.
When Savaş was about to be appointed as advisor to the university’s chancellor, CHP MPs strongly opposed the appointments and 23 of them submitted a parliamentary question demanding an investigation into Savaş.
However, previous conflicts between the CHP and Savaş were buried in 2014 in exchange for a political victory.
During his 2019 election campaign, Savaş particularly used the Hatay people’s resentment against Syrians to increase his votes. After the election and until the earthquake, when his name appeared in the nationwide media it was mostly in relation to news about the Syrians.
“The population of Hatay is 1.67 million. There are some 500,000 Syrians according to official figures. But the unofficial count is more than 800,000. That means one in every two people in the province is Syrian. Seventy-five percent of new-born babies are conceived by Syrian women. That means three in every four new-borns are Syrian. The psychology of war has deteriorated their hormones. There are Syrian women who give birth after 11 months of pregnancy, or those who give birth to six children in six years. All of them [Syrian men] have three or four wives and all of them give birth to lots of children. The demographic structure is changing to our detriment. None of us will be happy if one of them is elected as mayor in 12 years time,” he said in March 2022.
The governor of Hatay lodged a legal complaint against Savaş over this statement.
However, despite ups and downs in the relations between the mayor and his former party, the AKP, his comments in October 2022 prove that their ties have not been completely cut.
“Forty days ago, a senior name came to meet me saying, ‘You follow a nationalist-conservative line, your type does not align with them [the CHP]. Come to us, we will get you to you meet the president, we will hand over everything to do with Hatay to you’,” said Savaş when asked during a programme on TV5 whether AKP officials had contacted him in relation to the coming elections.
Savaş said he preferred to stay in the CHP as the party had never done anything that could hurt him.
How the massive destruction in Hatay due to the earthquake and his comments afterwards will affect Savaş’s career is still uncertain, as Turkey is heading towards general elections constitutionally scheduled for 18 June and local elections to be held next year.