Turkey's youth: the last hope for democracy?

1.5 million young Turks are expected to vote for the first time on Sunday

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gestures as he attends a national youth foundation event in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. Syrian government forces pushed into an opposition stronghold on Thursday, as Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters battled with Kurdish militants in a nearby area. (Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP)
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Philosophy student Şafak Küçüksezer was due to submit an assignment about totalitarian states and the moral dilemmas presented in Watchmen, a dystopian comic book series, the morning in March when police raided his home. "The search of the house and the expropriation of my external hard drive, laptop and cell phone took about two hours," he recalls. "One of the officers was actually reading my copy of Watchmen as I was taken away."

Two days earlier, a group of students at Istanbul's prestigious Bogazici University celebrated the Turkish military's takeover of Afrin in northern Syria by handing out sweets on campus. A group of anti-war and leftist students organised a counter protest, and soon scuffles broke out. Fourteen of the 22 counter demonstrators were arrested on the spot, and all have since been accused of spreading "terrorist propaganda." The incident took on particular significance when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the anti-war students "communists, traitors and terrorists."

Mr Küçüksezer, a final year student at Bogazici, was detained on suspicion of involvement as, he says, he was "known to be a socialist." He was released once authorities found out he wasn’t on campus at the time, but the other students, released on parole this month, face further court hearings. "The case against them is so absurd," says Mr Küçüksezer.

Ahead of Sunday's presidential and parliamentary elections, the authorities' response to the Bogazici incident shows how rights enjoyed by young people in Turkey for decades – free speech and the right to gather unencumbered – are increasingly restricted. With more than 1.5 million young people expected to cast their vote for the first time on Sunday, the youth vote will be an important factor in deciding where Turkey goes next. A dual victory for the government – Mr Erdogan retaining the presidency and a Justice and Development Party (AKP) majority in parliament – may institutionalise the authoritarian turn that in recent years has seen courts, the media and public life fall under increasing government control.

Turkey's first-time voters are the first generation not to have experienced the political and economic upheavals of the late twentieth century; they're a generation that's grown up expecting a life with all the modern trappings. But the political upheaval that's traumatised Turkey in recent years means they now do so with a dearth of job prospects and university places weighing on their minds: The purge that followed the failed July 2016 coup saw the independence of universities severely curbed and thousands of academics fired. Meanwhile, the number of people aged between 20 and 25 not in employment, training or education stands at 20 per cent for men and 51 per cent for women.


Read more of our coverage on Turkey's elections:

Erdogan election rival courts Turkey’s Kurdish vote

From prison cell, Erdogan rival questions election legitimacy

Erdogan's election travels expose challenge at home


All the while, polls find that young people are more dissatisfied with the state of democracy in Turkey than any other age group. Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the turnout rate among 18- to 24-year-olds in elections in 2015 were some of the highest in the 34-nation group at more than 80 per cent (though Turkey's compulsory voting system partly explains this).

For Ezgi Cengiz, a first-time voter from Aydin in western Anatolia, the country is not going in the right direction. "We are in an economic crisis, they [the government] always win elections with the threat of civil war," the 18-year-old says, referring to ongoing military operations in eastern Turkey against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party. "I want to have an academic career and be a journalist. [But] I'm not sure if I can get these because of the pressure on journalists in Turkey, because of the detentions."

Two young women attend a presidential campaign happening at a pro-Erdogan supporters' kiosk in Istanbul on June 19, 2018.  Under Erdogan, Turkey has sought to rebuild its Ottoman-era influence in the Middle East, notably in Syria and Iraq as well as the Balkans and also Africa. In presidential and legislative polls on June 24, Erdogan and his party will face the biggest test at the ballot box to their one-and-a-half-decade grip on power. / AFP / Aris MESSINIS
Two young women attend a presidential campaign happening at a pro-Erdogan supporters' kiosk in Istanbul on June 19, 2018. Aris Messinis /  AFP

Recent comments in pro-government newspapers suggest the AKP hierarchy is aware that in past elections it performed worse among young voters than other age groups, and it has since pivoted to embrace a new generation. Several party members in their early twenties, including rising star Yasemin Atasever, were named to the AKP's Central Decision and Executive Board last year. While in government it has overseen the lowering of the age required to stand for parliament from 25 to 18. "There is no other political party in Turkey that trusts young people and relies on them as much as we do," Mr Erdogan told a gathering of the AKP Youth in Ankara last month. "Young people will not be ordered around; we will work alongside you." According to the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, the AKP has 25 parliamentary candidates under 25-years-old standing in Sunday's election, though the opposition CHP has put forward 48.

Ms Atasever's Instagram feed offers a window into the life of young, ambitious AKP members. There are photos of ornate Malaysian mosques and Ai Weiwei's refugee exhibition at an Istanbul museum. There are also pictures of Ms Atasever standing next to the most powerful figure in modern Turkish history: President Erdogan. Miss Atasever didn’t respond to requests for comment.

For Furkan, a PhD student from Istanbul currently studying in Massachusetts and who plans to return to Turkey in the next five or six years, jobs in his field are scarce. "I work in the area of next generation technology, so it would be extremely difficult for me to find a job in Turkey that is near my experience level, especially considering even in the US there are only three to four companies in this field," he says. "I could find a job most likely in engineering but it would be doing something more mundane."

Furkan wouldn't divulge who he voted for – nor his full name, given the tension he says exists between the US and Turkey today – but says he believes Mr Erdogan will likely win in a second round vote, expected on July 8 if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent on Sunday. He believes more should be done in Turkey to invest in long term tech advancements.

"Last year there was, I believe, around US$164 billion [Dh600 billion] in total venture capital investment into start-ups globally. Turkey made up less than 0.1 per cent [US$105 million or Dh385 million] of this. This is ridiculous, considering we have close to the 20th largest economy," he says. In a country with one of the highest social media penetration rates in the world, the government has an uneasy relationship with technology, in the past banning YouTube and Twitter, while Wikipedia remains inaccessible today.

The beating and alleged torture of high school students in Kadikoy, Istanbul, on June 8 suggest the authorities are concerned with rather different issues. Around 50 students, several as young as 15, were protesting the "poor quality" of education on the last day of school when many were detained for hours in a police vehicle and beaten.

Nazim Karuc poses for a picture during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, June 13, 2018. ÒErdogan really messed up education. Students who graduated one year before me were appointed as nurses but although I received the same education I can only graduate as an auxiliary nurse.  When my friends start work in a hospital as nurses I can only start as cleaning staff.  Erdogan doesnÕt keep his words. He said he minded about the young people but he acted against the future of the young. The only leader I trust and believe in is Meral Aksener.  If Erdogan is elected again, Turkey will become much worse. We are worried about unemployment,Ó Karuc said. Picture taken June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Student Nazim Karuc tells Reuters that he fears the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. "Erdogan doesn't keep his words. He said he minded about the young people but he acted against the future of the young. If Erdogan is elected again, Turkey will become much worse. We are worried about unemployment," Karuc said. Picture taken June 13, 2018. Umit Bektas / Reuters 

"The future looks bleak for most. There is a cultural deprivation growing hand in hand with the increasing poverty," says Mr Küçüksezer, the Bogazici University student. "We are a generation referred to as 'the election-fatigued generation'," he says, adding that he thinks he'll face difficulties finding a job after he graduates since his "personal profile is known to be political by various government organs."

Few expect Mr Erdogan to be unseated as president, but the challenge by the 'Nation Alliance' of opposition parties could see that grouping win enough parliamentary seats to damage the aura of invincibility that has surrounded the president for the past 15 years. "The best outcome on Sunday," says Mr Küçüksezer, "would be that the [pro-government] 'People's Alliance' loses its majority in the parliament."

With one of the youngest populations in Europe and an economy many experts expect to enter a period of increased instability, the prospects for young people – like Turkey's future – are far from certain.