Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Turkey’s youth: Hope for re-democratization amid polarization

An estimated six million new voters will take part in the national elections of 2023. Political parties are after them

Seren Selvin Korkmaz
23 February 2021, 4.49pm
Protest against the appointed new rector of Bogazici University on February 2, 2021, Istanbul, Turkey.
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Erhan Demirtas/PA/All rights reserved.

As student protests continue at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University, one of the country’s most prestigious universities, President Recep Erdoğan has been trying to mobilize his base by deepening polarization in the country. Until now, the response of Bogazici students had limited the effectiveness of Erdoğan’s authoritarian populism. This younger generation, aged below 30, has emerged as the third actor in this polarized political field, giving a glimpse of hope for Turkey’s future.

The problems and socio-political demands of young people are often treated as a “non-urgent” or “scarcely important” matter. However, many studies indicate that millions of young Turks are beginning to demand a radical overhaul of the systems we live by and are capable of acting as force to transform Turkish politics.

Demand for civil liberties

Since early January, students and academics have been protesting Erdoğan’s appointment of an outside rector, Melih Bulu, at Boğaziçi University. The university has long held the tradition of selecting its rector, but in 2016 the authority to select university rectors was transferred to the president, as part of Erdoğan’s strategy to take complete control of state institutions.

When the protests began, the government immediately targeted those students demanding an election as “terrorists”. Students were exposed to police violence and some have been jailed. While the government sought out any conflict in the protests in order to encourage their base, student responses were on the whole creative, demonstrating a prevailing diversity and peaceful coexistence on campus.

Nascent informal youth platforms

Instead of participating in organized politics as members of youth branches of long-standing political parties, Turkish youth seem to be coming together under the influence of new, technologically innovative, inclusive and informal platforms. These platforms do not operate alongside the conventional socio-political fault lines of Turkey, such as secularism-Islamism, Left-Right, or Turkish-Kurdish. Instead these new youth platforms ask for and actively create “gray areas” where they can explore, debate, and negotiate these conventional cleavages to rethink their configurations. These groups often stress the fact that they do not want to be dominated by political polarization and the vocabulary accompanying it. Without necessarily refuting their identities, they would like to recreate a political field for debate, negotiation, deliberation and consensus. Gray Area Platform [Gri Bölge in Turkish] is one of them and focuses its online activities on the problems of the youth and their vision for the future.

There are other organizations that strive to address everyday problems that young people disproportionately suffer from. Youth Unemployed People Platform or KYKlılar Platformu (KYK is the abbreviation of Credit and Dormitory Institution) are examples of such issue-based platforms paying attention to Turkey’s many socio-economic woes.

In Turkey's ongoing economic crisis, youth unemployment consistently hovers around 25%. Many young people who graduated from colleges in the last couple of years suffer from unemployment and are unable to pay off their student debt: the situation is expected only to worsen due to the reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such organizations aim to raise public awareness around these issues.

Each is supported by individuals pursuing very different political orientations, left- or right-wing political parties, secular or Islamists, Turkish or Kurdish, as well as Sunni, Christian, atheists or Alevis. In the middle of the dominant highly polarized political rhetoric that revolves around hate, fear and division, youth-led initiatives are giving rise to charity-based informal platforms like Ahbap Platform, which operates in a rather efficient way through its slogan “in pursuit of kindness and love”. They seem to be more outward-looking and ambitious than their predecessors and institutionalized contemporaries – with movements such as the Arayüz Campaign focusing on the unequal representation of young people, or İVME, inspired by Momentum in the UK and Democratic Socialist in the US.

The fight to represent Turkey’s youth

Given the parameters of the current electoral system, both the governing People’s Alliance and the opposition bloc need to reach out to new electors or undecided voters. An estimated six million new voters will take part in the national elections of 2023. Hence, each political leader attempts to address the youth to line up new cadres of vote-casting citizens behind their political agendas.

While President Erdoğan complains that the ruling party haven’t yet succeeded in establishing a hegemonic rule over ideas, his ideal of raising a pious generation does seem to have utterly failed. The inability to grasp the changing desires, demands, and lifestyles of the youth, is evident in their attempts to reach out to young voters which have generated only backlash and ridicule.

On 19 October, for instance, the youth branch of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) released a three-minute video for young people entitled “Who Are You?”. The voice in the video repeatedly poses that question without generating any space or occasion for the audience to join in the narrative or provide answers for them. The answer includes the names of prominent figures from Islamic, Ottoman and Turkish history including Prophet Muhammad, Sultan Mehmed II, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and predictably ends with the image of Erdoğan alongside all the other historical figures. In other words, all history is represented in one man. You are Erdoğan – no other possibility is glimpsed. The video duly backfired across social media platforms with many young people creating their own counter-videos, “who are they?”, in which they expose and explore their everyday struggles.

A recent poll of Turkey's youth found that 62.5% would like to leave the country, with 47% of AKP voters and 69% of MHP voters desiring to live abroad in Western countries.

Backed up by the findings of the Istanbul Political Research Institute (IstanPol) regarding Turkey's insecure youth, a recent SODEV poll found that 62.5% would like to leave the country, with 47% of AKP voters and 69% of MHP voters desiring to live abroad in Western countries. These young people define their primary problems as precarious work conditions, unemployment, and nepotism.

Other studies also demonstrate that young people suffer under what they consider to be an authoritarian-conservative assault on their civil liberties. Almost unanimously, they think that the cause of the major problems is Turkey’s politicians. Most young people think not only that existing political actors cannot solve Turkey's problems, but that they actually cause them.

Instead of offering young people a participatory political space in which to voice their demands or providing them with solutions, Turkey’s political class just continues to send them “sympathetic” and “populist” messages, which fall on deaf ears.

Apolitical or a force for re-democratization?

Turkish youths have long been depicted as apolitical but they just have a different approach to politics. Their criterion, not governed by the dominant political set-up, is “justice”. They demand a stable socio-political system that does not ignore the labor they put into their education and one that ensures civil and political liberties.

However, it must be underlined that young people are also “anxious and stressed”, as IstanPol findings revealed in early 2020. Politicians like Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul who won the historical victory against AKP in İstanbul as the candidate of the opposition, and a campaign imbued with theme, “radical love”, however, have attracted young people. According to RAWEST’s latest research, Kurdish youth across Turkey are also drawn to Mayor İmamoğlu. Similar to Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned leader of HDP, Mayor İmamoğlu is becoming a shining figure among the youth through his radically different political articulation.

Ali Babacan, the leader of the recently founded DEVA Party also has the potential to attract the youth with his profile of “a leader who listens to people”. Both Generation Y, which was the prominent force of Gezi Resistance in Turkey in 2013, and Generation Z with their new approach to politics and everyday life, shared a global vision, and hope for the re-democratization of Turkey in the near future.

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