Erdogan has long sought to mould young Turks into a so-called 'pious generation' for his brand of Islamic political rule. Now it seems he has failed, as the younger generation longs for what that the president refuses to grant them. In next year’s elections, their votes may prove decisive.
ISTANBUL — The only Turkey that Zehra Denizoglu has ever known is the one governed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He became Prime Minister the year she was born, and shortly afterward was named “European of the Year”, having brought the inflation rate down to 9%. Now, 18 years later, it is more than five times that, and Erdogan has established a regime where he wields absolute power. Denizoglu is now an adult and has started studying at a university in Istanbul. Next year she will be one of around 6 million first-time voters in Turkey.
She says she is leaning towards Erdogan’s party, the AKP. But she remains undecided. “I can’t say that he’s completely OK,” she says of the president. Denizoglu thinks politicians don’t do enough for young people.
In Turkey’s upcoming elections, 18 to 25 year olds will make up 15% of the electorate. Their importance is not lost on Erdogan. He once vowed to raise a pious generation of Turkish nationalists, who would be loyal to him. But he miscalculated. Generation Z is turning its back on the man who wants to be their leader.
Frustration with Turkish politics
A significant majority — 62.5% – of this age group is dissatisfied with the Turkish government. That was the finding of a study published in February, carried out in Ankara by university professor Ali Caglar and commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a think tank with links to Germany’s Christian Democrats. More than a third of respondents said the president was responsible for the country’s problems. The most common problems raised were the economy, unemployment, the education system, a lack of justice and freedom, as well as nepotism and corruption.
They are not only frustrated with Erdogan, but with all of Turkish politics. The opposition is just as responsible for Turkey’s problems as the government, said 38.9% of young people. When asked which candidates they would vote for, most said: none of the above.
“This is because it has been the same politicians and the same political party in power for many years,” says Caglar. Erdogan, who has been in power for 19 years, was the preferred candidate of 16.8% of respondents. That made him the most popular candidate, but with a very low preference. Even in Turkey’s opposition, it is always the same politicians in charge, says Caglar. “So young people have no hope for the future,” he says. “They think that nothing will change.”
A more liberal generation, interested in rights
But it would be unfair to say young people in Turkey are not politically engaged. There may not be such headline-grabbing demonstrations as we saw in 2013, when the Gezi Park protests spread across the whole of Turkey and the young generation found its voice.
In Istanbul, students at Bogazici University have been protesting for a year against the appointment of a rector backed by Erdogan. “Young people in Turkey believe in themselves. They are connected to the world,” says Caglar. “But they don’t trust today’s politicians in the slightest.”
For the president, that can only be bad news.
Their sense of hopelessness is clear from the study’s findings. Almost three quarters of respondents said they would like to live in a different country if they had the opportunity. The three most common reasons for this were better quality of life abroad, more human rights and freedom. Two thirds of respondents said that human rights were not respected in Turkey; only 11.9% had faith in the courts and the justice system.
The values that Erdogan has long disregarded are important to young people. A study carried out in Turkey by Istanbul Economics Research & Consultancy, commissioned by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an institute with ties to Germany’s Free Democratic Party, came to the same conclusion: 83% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 30 thought it was “very important” to live in a country where free speech is protected.
On social issues, young people also take a more liberal view than their political leaders would like. In the KAS study, 92.3% of respondents said pre-marital relationships between men and women were “completely normal”.
In 2013, Gezi Park protests spread across the whole of Turkey and the young generation found its voice.
The dream of a “pious generation”
That must be shocking for a conservative Muslim like Erdogan, who in 2013 even tried to forbid students from living in shared houses with members of the opposite sex. He wanted to raise a “pious generation”, as he once said, but clearly his success has been limited.
At the same time, around three quarters of respondents said religion was important to them. This must be understood in the context of Turkish culture, as for many citizens religion is part of Turkish identity. On the other hand, only 29.8% of respondents agreed with the statement: “I am very religious and believe in God.”
For the politicians trying to win their votes, the all-important question is: how will these attitudes translate into voting behaviour among young people? The political factions in Turkey are well-established and voters rarely switch sides. In next year’s elections, two groups will prove decisive: the undecided voters and the first-time voters.
The study also asked which party the young people would vote for if elections were to take place tomorrow. It should be noted that the interviews took place between May and September last year, when the Turkish currency was not as weak as it is today.
The largest group said they wouldn’t vote, were undecided or didn’t want to answer: altogether 44.8%. The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was the most popular, with 23.9%, while Erdogan’s party (AKP) only reached a mere 10%.
The party is significantly less popular with young people than the wider population. According to polls conducted by the website James-in-Turkey in August, 31.8% of the population would vote AKP. What’s more, according to a survey by Turkish market research institute Konda, four years ago 30% of 18 to 32 year olds would have voted AKP.
In other words: young people don’t trust Erdogan. They trust him less than the general population, and they trust him less than they used to. For the president, that can only be bad news.