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Youth who make the future

Movements capable of bringing about change, just by showing their resistance towards unjust governments, have emerged and young people are directing them. In Turkey, youth participation in politics can be divided into four eras.

Nowadays we are observing many new forms of protests against governments. Authorities have been challenged, ministers have been fired and dictators have been expelled. This wind of change has reverberated across the globe. Just as the student movement in Chile has illumined our understanding of the youth perspective in politics, this essay will look at how transformations in the position of youth have effected Turkish politics. There are four phases to examine: what I call, the era of assignments, the era of suppression, the era of depolitization and the era of institutional subordination.

The era of assignments

Kemal Ataturk’s Oration to the Youth during the formation of the republic embodied the point of view that: a young person's first duty lay in the protection of the country, especially their defence of the basis of the republican government,  i.e. Kemalist principles and revolutions. This ideological stance was embraced by young people as a possible source of renewal and continuous progress in the existing regime. Yet, in effect, this amounted to a mission of “conservation”: they were compelled to protect the country within the framework of Kemalist principles, which were inculcated into them in a circular fashion. The idea of progress was simply confined to the reproduction of the dominant ideology. This ideology created its subjects. Kemalist ideology attributed agency to youth with the caveat that its perspective and expectations must remain firmly within the prevailing boundaries of the prevailing ideology.

As one might expect, this soon led to a struggle to subordinate the young: the minds of citizens were regarded as a tabula rasa on which politicians might engineer their version of enlightenment, built as a fortress against all challengers. Politicians were assumed to have the ability and the right to think in the name of the citizens, who lacked that capacity.  Concomitantly, political participation was seen as a duty precisely because of the contract assumed between the state and the citizen. In exchange for active political participation (and other duties such as conforming to laws), the state has been supposed to implement certain regulations in order to improve citizens’ lives. However, once the idea of duty (rather than a right) is attached to political participation, problems will follow, especially with regard to the conditionality of youth participation. Young people can be politically active if and only if they espouse the relevant ideology. These kinds of conditions are just asking for dissent.

The era of suppression

At least Kemalist ideology recognized young people's right to participate in politics. However, in the context of Cold War, perceptions changed. The great polarization of ideologies and increasing violence on the streets precipitated harsh sanctions against politically active people. In the eyes of the ruling politicians: these were no longer their loyal subjects. 

Young activists, whose ideology was not compatible with the state’s ideology, were manipulated by powers from outside, according to this view. Young people had insufficient experience to fight this misperception, except by resorting to violent activities which only served to vindicate and strengthen the official explanation. Blaming young people for being passive instruments at the service of powers from outside legitimized considerable violence against them within the context of the Cold War. They were the enemies of the state; they were shadow representatives of outside enemies. Young people as a result abandoned the political sphere and in fact adopted a widespread aversion to politics. Obviously there remained a few young people who were still politically active. But the general turn towards politics had been put into reverse.

The era of depoliticization

The state’s attitude towards 'youth' buttressed this reversal in several ways. Many Turkish intellectuals began to criticize young people for not being interested in politics: they would be the future of their country; they should be ashamed of this lack of commitment. This was followd by a fresh attempt to incorporate young people into politics. They must be once again turned into loyal subjects, because someone must sustain the institutions if we are to have a future.

The era of institutional subordination

Turkish politics have been rejuvenated again in the course of AKP governance. The age limit for being eligible to stand as an election candidate has fallen. Youth organizations within the structure of the political parties are much more in the spotlight. Agency has been attributed to young people again. However, once again this can be seen to involve a re-appropriation of young people as subjects. Their existence in the political firmament can be justified and accounted for if and only if they play their part within the existing institutions. You might call this a kind of institutional, rather than ideological, subordination. Active political participation has been granted to them under the caveat that they conform to the rules of a political system by participating in the youth organizations of political parties. They are supposed to reproduce these prevailing institutions. The others on the streets have been cast in the role of  a “pathology.”  They are arrested, tortured and these practices have emerged as simply an everday fact in our daily lives.

What to do?

Uprisings in North Africa and in Chile’s student movement are full of examples of actions taken against all kinds of subordination. Young people have proved that they are agents capable, not only of political participation, but of the process which makes experience, as opposed to passive reflection of it. Young people have a legitimate right to prefer squares and streets as places in which they can exhibit their ways of thinking. Neither ideological nor institutional subordination can ultimately confine them. This realisation is the herald of a new era. We see it in the way that people protesting in these squares have recourse to constant political change through this method. Young people take their place in this to accelerate the speed of progress: subjects, no more.

About the author

Semuhi Sinanoglu is based at McGill University, Canada as a fellow of Jeanne Sauvé Foundation.

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