Is Erdogan’s rule coming to an end? Turkish young people in particular will determine this

Millions of Turkish young people who will vote for the first time this Sunday have received a mysterious letter in the mail in recent months. On one side it said ‘2023’ in red cow letters and a QR code. On the other side the text: ‘First times are unforgettable. Your first movie visit, your first telephone, your first vacation, your first elections.’ There was a gray area on one corner of the envelope that the recipient had to scratch off, like a scratch card. And only then did it become clear who the sender of the letter was: ‘Your first vote for the AK Party and President Erdogan.’

Many young people criticized the letter on social media. “Look what God has done,” says a young woman with pink hair with a gray tuft in it scornfully in a video. She scans the QR code with her phone. This leads to a YouTube video in which Erdogan addresses the youth, and a special election app from the AKP. Erdogan promises to plant a tree for every time the app is downloaded. The young woman thinks the letter is a waste. “I am young and I know nothing,” she says. “But I think you should replace your campaign team because I’m not impressed.”

Crucial group

Young people are a crucial group of voters in the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on Sunday. The Turkish population is one of the youngest in Europe: half of the 85 million Turks are under thirty. About 6 million of them will be allowed to vote for the first time on Sunday – about 10 percent of the electorate. These voters were toddlers when Erdogan came to power in 2003 and know no leader other than him. But many are unhappy with its authoritarian course, which has led to political polarization, underemployment, high inflation, and cronyism.

“My student life is sad,” says Berk Polat, a petroleum engineering student with medium-length hair and a cap, in a café in Istanbul. “I had imagined it very differently. They say this is the best time of your life. But first came the pandemic. And since the earthquake we have online lectures again because the student dormitories have been made available to the victims. In addition, high inflation has made life outrageously expensive. My friends and I don’t have the money to go out on weekends. Instead, we sit at home with a few beers.”

Polat is still relatively well off. He is financially supported by his parents who live in the southern city of Adana and both have good jobs. And when he moved to Istanbul to study, he was able to move in with his brother, who had preceded him and now has his own business. Most of his friends live in student dormitories because renting has become unaffordable due to the housing crisis. “To survive, they work in bars or coffee shops on weekends. Even a meal in the university cafeteria has become too expensive for them. They are desperate.”

Also listen to the podcast Today about the Turkish elections, with correspondent Toon Beemsterboer

Like many Turkish young people, Polat yearns for change. That is why he will vote on Sunday for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the presidential candidate of the opposition alliance. “Kilicdaroglu is a calm, peaceful man. We need such a leader. Because after years of political instability, increasing repression and polarization, we are so tense. Due to his authoritarian leadership style, Erdogan has lost the support of youth. We don’t like the strict rules he imposes on society, such as banning concerts and checking social media. We need freedom.”

Team player

Although Kilicdaroglu (74) is even older than Erdogan (69), his message seems to resonate more with young people. While Erdogan emphasizes his image as a strong leader who has turned Turkey into a superpower, Kilicdaroglu presents himself as a team player who will end polarization and restore democracy. In a video that has been viewed more than 100 million times, in which Kilicdaroglu addressed his Alevi origins, Turkey’s largest religious minority, he vowed to make Turkey a country where “we no longer talk about identity and division.” He has a small lead in most polls. Some 57 percent of voters going to the polls for the first time say they will never vote for Erdogan.

Many Turkish young people have a very different view of life than their parents. They are the (grand)children of the millions of migrant workers who have moved from the countryside to the big cities in recent decades. Erdogan owes his political career to the support of this working class. Thanks to the turbulent economic growth in the first half of his reign, it grew into a new conservative-religious middle class. To their delight, Erdogan ended the secular repression of the 1990s, when headscarves were banned at university.

Youth unemployment

But the new generation has not consciously experienced this time, and only knows the repression of Erdogan. Unlike their parents, most young people grew up in the big city. Many had the opportunity to go to university, where they came into contact with students from all over Turkey. It made them more tolerant of dissenters. Despite their average higher education, many cannot find a suitable job. Youth unemployment is 25 percent. As a result, the majority of young people view the future of Turkey as bleak. Many fear economic collapse.

These young people are more sensitive and thoughtful than previous generations, says Ali Çaglar, a political scientist at Haceteppe University in Ankara. He coordinated a major research project on youth for the German Konrad Audenauer Stiftung. “The largest group calls itself apolitical. This is a break with their parents’ generation, which was divided between left and right, secular and religious. Young people hate strict ideological identities. Thanks to the internet, they feel more like citizens of the world. But this does not mean that they have no ideals.”

Erdogan has tried to create a pious generation, but according to Çaglar it has not succeeded. For example, he invested heavily in religious education and greatly expanded the number of Islamic Imam Hatip schools. Although Imam Hatip students now make up 11 percent of the total secondary school students, they get 23 percent of the available budget. “Yet the percentage of deistic youth in Imam Hatip schools is very high,” says Çaglar, referring to a group that believes in God’s creation but not in its involvement in daily life. “Young people associate Islam with a corrupt government. And they know that there is more than Turkey and the Islamic world.”

Erdogan has admitted in the past that he struggles to reach young people because they are less receptive to his identity politics. He said that after 20 years his AK party dominates politics and the economy, but fails to control cultural life. “We are struggling to convey our achievements to our young people, who did not live in ancient Turkey and do not know the problems back then,” he said in 2021.

Internet freedom

The magnitude of the gap with youth became apparent during the pandemic. Due to poor planning, the government had pushed back the date of the university exams several times. Erdogan decided to give an explanation via a live stream on YouTube. As he spoke, the video received hundreds of thousands of dislikes. The hashtag #OyMoyYok (no vote for you) started trending in the comments. Erdogan’s office promptly disabled the comments. Shortly after, the president announced legislation to restrict social media.

But if there’s one thing that matters to young people, it’s internet freedom. “We cannot criticize Erdogan online,” says the student Polat. “I know people who have been arrested for this. I’ve had a Twitter account for ten years, but I don’t post anything anymore. I only use Twitter to follow the news. I wish it were different. But my family warns me to be careful about what I share on social media; they are afraid that one day the police will also be at my door. If President Erdogan wins the elections, I want to go to Europe. Young people there do not live like us.”

Polat is certainly not alone. A real exodus is predicted if Erdogan wins the elections. And Turkey has been struggling with one in recent years brain drain. According to figures from the Turkish Institute of Statistics (TUIK), some 330,000 people left the country between 2016 and 2019, half of them between the ages of 20 and 34. After 2019, TUIK stopped publishing emigration figures. The economic crisis is the main reason. The sharp fall of the Turkish lira has eroded purchasing power, prompting many young academics to seek their future in the West.

But repression and political persecution also make Turks want to leave. They already form the third largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, after Syrians and Afghans. A young Kurdish microbiologist from eastern Turkey, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he is learning German. If Erdogan wins the elections, he wants to leave for Germany. A few years ago, Erdogan issued a decree against him because his (now dead) brother was a PKK fighter. This allows him to forget about a career as a doctor or academic in Turkey.

read here more about the role of the Kurds in the Turkish elections

He himself does not support the PKK. “I am against violence, because that only increases the division between Kurds and Turks,” he says. “However, I do not blame my brother for not being able to find a good job because of him. Geography is destiny. The government does not want the Kurds to develop. That is why I see no other option than to go abroad. Several of my friends have already left for Germany for the same reason. They are happy there. One of them is even married to a German woman. They see a future ahead of them.”