Turkey's youth hold Erdoğan in their grasp

About 1.6 million young Turks will be voting for the first time in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

18-year-old Ekrem, a recent high school graduate from the large, western city of Bursa, will be proudly casting his ballot along with 57 million other voters.

“You feel like you’re doing something for the good of your country,” he said.

But Ekrem, who didn’t want to risk giving his last name in a country where people are regularly prosecuted for ‘insulting’ public officials, also worries about the integrity of the vote.

“In the last three to four years there have been a lot of questions about whether the elections are fair and whether our votes matter.”

Last year’s national referendum to increase President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s already formidable powers was marred by numerous allegations of fraud , voter suppression and other irregularities such as the detention of official observers. Sunday’s vote will take place under a two-year-long state of emergency after harassment and extremely limited coverage of the opposition in the media, most of which is loyal or subservient to the government.

According to data shown to Ahval by Metropoll polling agency head Özer Sencar, a striking 18.7 percent of respondents aged 18-24 said that as an act of protest against the referendum, they didn’t vote in it, though overall turnout was 85.5 per cent.

About 10 million people, or 20 per cent of Turkey’s electorate, are 25 years old or under. The youngest have never known a time when the country wasn’t dominated by Erdoğan, who’s led Turkey as prime minister and then president since 2003.

According to a Metropoll survey from earlier this month, only 41.8 per cent of respondents aged 18-24 said they’d vote for Erdoğan, versus 46.1 per cent of total respondents, and 32.1 per cent indicated they’d vote for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), versus 42.1 per cent of all respondents.

Turkey’s youth are often described as politically apathetic.

Fatoş Karahasan, an author who just published a book about Turkey’s young people, says that after the devastating 1980 military coup, many parents tried to protect their kids by keeping them out of politics and off the streets, but also ended up isolating and coddling them.

“It was a cocoon for all the kids. Families have their own bubbles,” she said. “They’ve been brought up in the safety of their bedrooms.”

Karahasan says that as a result, many young people avoid confrontations, aren’t interested in politics and are likely to vote for the same parties and candidates as their parents, who have huge influence over them.

“In previous generations, youngsters used to go against the political choices of their parents, but I don’t think these kids will.”

But many youth seem politically engaged, such as the high school students who were severely beaten by police earlier this month for staging a protest. Furthermore, a study from Konda Research and Consultancy found that over half of the roughly 3.5 million participants at the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013 were 25 or under.


Hanne Büşra, a 24-year-old Turkish student in the Hague and volunteer with the New Young Turks, a civil society youth group, thinks it is a misconception that young people don’t care about politics.

“When I go and talk to my friends, I think young people are actually quite engaged in politics. We talk about it on social media and amongst ourselves,” she said.

Erol, 18, is frustrated with what he sees as his generation’s ignorance and apathy, but blames it on the government.

“(Young people) don’t care about our country’s future. This is because of our educational system. They don’t know things, they don’t investigate, they don’t question anything.”

Erol is voting for the nationalist Good Party (IP) for parliament because he says they have a team of young, well-educated professionals, and for the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem İnce for president, because he likes İnce’s peaceful rhetoric.

“I’ll vote for whoever thinks about technology, education, peace, justice and freedom,” he said.

Erdoğan has been accused of catering to the nationalist vote by recently embarking on military operations in northern Syria and Iraq.

“If İnce were president, our soldiers wouldn’t be going to die. This is just about collecting nationalist votes,” Erol said.

Ekrem says many young people have given up on Turkey’s future.

“They say even if they work hard, nothing will change. They’re hopeless and don’t really care.”

Many of Ekrem’s friends have not only given up hope for political change, but also have dim prospects for career success.

“They just try to make the best of their lives. They prefer personal relations over their career goals because they’ve kind of lost hope. They say, ‘If I have good friends, a good family and a good girlfriend, I’ll be happy. There’s no possibility for me to have success, so I’ll at least enjoy my (personal) life,’” he said.

Unemployment amongst people aged 15-24 is 17.7 per cent, and a survey in late May by MAK Consulting found that 45 per cent of Turks see the faltering economy as the greatest challenge. Many also complain that jobs or contracts with the government or government-tied businesses prize political loyalty over merit.

“It's very hard to achieve anything if you don't have family or political ties in critical spots,” Ekrem said.

But there are also millions of young people who staunchly support Erdoğan and the AKP.

“Erdoğan takes special care of youth, gives them what they need and does many projects for them,” said 20-year-old Arabic and Islamic studies student Esra Nur Demirbaşer.

“He opens beautiful, high quality universities in every city and encourages the youth to study.”

Erdoğan’s core base is mostly composed of Sunni religious conservatives.

Ebubekir, a 19-year-old engineering student from Adana, a large city in Turkey’s south, sees Turkey as above all an Islamic country misunderstood by the West, and likes how the AKP and Erdoğan prioritize Islam.

“(Erdoğan( isn’t perfect, but he’s a well-intentioned Muslim and leader, and [has been) a great politician from an early age,” he said.

Many of Erdoğan’s supporters are bitter over past discrimination against publicly pious Muslims when the state and business world were dominated by hardline secularists.

“Sixteen years ago our freedoms in Turkey were restricted in the name of secularism. Erdogan’s government doesn’t restrict our freedom,” Demirbaşer said.

But now secularists, who constitute a large minority, say they’re the ones whose lifestyles are being restricted. Politicians make constant references to Islam and make derogatory remarks aimed at secularists, and their policies, particularly regarding education.

“(Erdoğan’s) war against secular people makes our lives harder day by day,” said Arda, a 19-year-old high school student.

“It’s not only about paying a lot of money for alcohol; the social pressure makes it impossible for us to live how we want.”

But Ebubekir scoffs at such concerns.

“All secular (people) can drink everywhere. No one forces them to wear a burqa or headscarf.”

But regardless of whether the secularists or religious conservatives win the election, Karahasan says the government needs to create more opportunities for young people.

“If they don’t get jobs, if they stay at home with their parents, with their allowance, it’s very sad because they don’t have any dreams. We should give these kids a future to dream about.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.