Turkey’s young voters look to a future without Erdogan

Six million first-time voters are eligible to vote in Turkey's most important election in decades

People gather outside Istanbul's Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul. Reuters
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Outside a busy coffee shop in Istanbul, many customers are not old enough to know life under any leader other than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for 22 years.

The afternoon sun has people in good spirits and tables are packed, but young people here say they are afraid for a future under the only president they have known.

Fati Aktas, 22, voted in local elections but it is his first time voting in a general election.

He will cast his vote on Sunday for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), who Mr Aktas believes “will treat people equally”.

Analysts estimate that millions of first-time voters, who make up about 8 per cent of the electorate, will sway the tightly contested election.

The large Turkish diaspora is also expected to play an important role. However, unlike Turks abroad, who have traditionally supported Mr Erdogan, young people are generally expected to favour the opposition.

Mr Aktas sits among a group of friends, all university graduates and colleagues at the local Starbucks coffee shop. It is not the life they envisioned for themselves.

“I want [Erdogan] to go because I'm scared for my future,” said Sultan, 25, who is voting for the second time.

“Economically, it's getting worse day by day. I'm a university graduate but I can't find a job in my area. I'm working in Starbucks. It's not what I wanted to do.

“I really want people to rule for two terms and not much more because long-term rulers become part of dirty politics,” she said.

In a tight election race, the President has capitalised on identity politics to fend off public anger over the economy, which has buckled under record inflation. But it is not the only issue at play, with many backing the opposition's pledges to “bring back democracy”.

Bedia, 22, said she has had enough of politics but will still vote on Sunday.

“I want Erdogan to go because if my brothers need new shoes and I can't afford to replace them, I would be heartbroken … I can’t buy what I like because I can barely afford things I need.”

A gesture of support during a rally for presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu on April 21, 2023. AFP

“It upsets me. I'm a young woman, I want to have fun, but I don't. Because of this, I want him to go. This is the first time I have the right to vote, and I'll use it to throw him in the bin.”

'A full democracy'

Across the Bosphorus, a rally for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is taking place amid a heavy police presence, with the rally only accessible through several police checkpoints. Armoured vehicles and riot police stand nearby.

The people gathered here are older. Women walk past in colourful Kurdish dresses and men outside sell merchandise for Amed Football Club from the southern city of Diyarbakir — or Amed in Kurdish — the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey.

Last month, students at Istanbul's renowned Kartal Imam Hatip school issued an open letter backing Mr Kilicdaroglu, a blow to Mr Erdogan, who attended the school and later sent his sons to the institution widely associated with the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).

At the rally, a 20-year-old former pupil and signatory of the open letter told The National why he was voting for the opposition.

“They've been there since I was born,” he said, referring to the AKP. “This is the first opportunity for change and a full democracy.

“We wanted to take responsibility and create another view of Turkish politics,” he said.

“No one is used to supporting a different political group in a public way, it's always done in private.”

“We want people to care for the public, both economically and socially. A state in which the judiciary is really independent.”

Asked his biggest hope for the future, his answer was simple: “definitely democracy”.

Updated: May 14, 2023, 8:38 AM