Analysis

Turkish Vote Will Show Whether Erdogan Has Lost the Young Generation

Five years ago they were taking a beating at Gezi Park in Istanbul. Still, around 60 percent of new voters are expected to back the president on Sunday

Supporters of Muharrem Ince, the main opposition presidential candidate, rally in Istanbul, June 23, 2018.
Emrah Gurel / AP

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Taksim Square in central Istanbul became a battleground in June 2013 between the Turkish security forces and thousands of young people protesting a plan to turn a park into a commercial center. Eleven people were killed and more than 8,000 were wounded in the clashes.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister, a year before he was elected president, “pledged” at the time to punish anyone who supported or funded the protests. He didn’t forget that promise, which cost a few businessmen their livelihoods. Thousands were arrested and political rivals were fired or put on trial for their part in the protests.

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Most of the demonstrators were between 20 and 30, not only from Istanbul but from many other cities. And many high school students bucked tradition and joined the protests, which for them was their first political experience on the ground.

Five years have gone by and those high school and college students are now voting for the first time. The son of friends of mine from Ankara took part in the protests. He’s now a computer-science student at Istanbul University. He told me Friday that he plans to vote for the pro-Kurdish party in the parliamentary elections Sunday and for the leading opposition candidate, Muharrem Ince, for president.

This family isn’t Kurdish; in fact they’ve told me they’re sick of the Kurds, who they believe are fighting their homeland. The young man’s father said he’s not happy about his son’s choice but he won’t try to dissuade him. “After I saw the blows his friends got in Gezi Park, it’s clear to me why he can’t vote for Erdogan,” the father said. “I think Erdogan has lost an entire generation.”

That’s probably an exaggeration; Erdogan hasn’t lost an entire generation. Out of a million and a half new voters in the total electorate of 59 million people, an estimated 60 percent will cast their ballot for Erdogan.

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rally in Istanbul a day before Turkey's elections, June 23, 2018.
Aris Messinis / AFP

But more than half will vote for other parties for parliament, not Erdogan’s. Turkey’s demographics have changed over the past decade; many more young men and women are studying at universities, but more young people can’t find proper jobs. Unemployment tops 10 percent, but among Turks between 18 and 24, the figure has skyrocketed to 38 percent. Women are allowed to wear a veil at university, but discrimination against them runs deep.

“Erdogan sees us as wombs to bear children. He calls on married women to have at least three children, while the government has granted longer maternity leave and has passed new laws against sexual harassment and rape,” said Sara Gunduz, a student at Bilkent University in Ankara.

“But we belong to a new generation. We want relevant higher education and well-paying jobs.”

“New generation” is a term Erdogan often uses, but while young, secular and liberal Turks mean this phrase in terms of their aspirations for education and employment, Erdogan wants a new religious generation. He wants a new generation that will bring alive the “old values” and help keep his Justice and Development Party vital.

But it turns out that even religious male and female students aren’t enthusiastic about Erdogan’s pro-religious rhetoric. On the ground that rhetoric has increased tenfold to 4,500 the number of religious schools in Turkey.

The new generation knows neither Erdogan’s achievements from 15 years ago, when he pulled Turkey out of a deep economic crisis, nor the prosperity and economic growth he generated. Unlike the middle and older generation, at least half of which sees Erdogan as a worthy leader because of these achievements, the younger generation is only interested in the present and the future.

Not only is the young people’s vote a worrisome unknown for all the presidential candidates, so is the vote of Turkish citizens living in Europe. About 2 million Turkish voters in Europe began casting their ballots last week. In the previous elections, 67 percent gave Erdogan their vote, a much greater percentage than in the old country.

But these citizens, most of whom live in Germany, and some in the Netherlands and France, are also influenced by a Europe harshly critical of Erdogan’s crackdown on civil rights. On the other hand, expatriate communities tend to be more conservative, right-wing and nationalist than the people in the home country.

Erdogan will probably earn many expat votes in the upcoming elections; the question is whether the support of Turks abroad will be enough to tip the scales in a presidential vote that will determine whether Erdogan crosses the 50-percent line or faces a runoff, an outcome that will convey weakness.

The other unknown is how Turkish women will vote. In recent years, the women’s vote has become a hot political issue in light of Erdogan’s rhetoric that calls on women to “fulfill their traditional roles,” bear children, be a helpmate to their husbands and mainly, not be heard.

In many districts in Turkey there are no women candidates for parliament. Women make up only 15 percent of the current legislature, and only one woman is running for president, Meral Aksener of the Iyi Party (the Good Party). She has been dubbed “sister” and “Mother Meral,” but is likely to garner a mere 12 percent of the vote. The women’s movement in Turkey hasn’t shown significant political clout, and women’s votes tend to be based on the husband’s decision.

In Iran, at least two presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rohani, won massive support among women, whose votes are considered to have put them into office. Iranian women pinned a photo of their candidate onto their blouses, drew their names in lipstick on their cheeks and blew them air kisses. In Turkey, there are no such heartwarming scenes for Erdogan. Assertive women aren’t exactly his target audience.