© arda savasciogullari/Shutterstock

© arda savasciogullari/Shutterstock

The political elections in Turkey, scheduled for May 14, will be fundamental in defining the future of the country, dominated for over twenty years by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A key role will be played by younger voters, the so-called "Generation Z"

05/05/2023 -  Kenan Behzat Sharpe Istanbul

Street interviews about politics often go viral in Turkey. These follow a clear format. A YouTuber with a microphone goes around and asks random passersby how they feel about particular political parties or social issues. As the country heads toward a critical election in May, a new phenomenon has emerged: teenagers and even primary school-aged children speaking eloquently and passionately about politics in the street.

In a recent, widely shared video , a street reporter asks a kid how he learnt so much about issues like parliamentary politics and inflation at such a young age. “It’s thanks to our president that we are dragged into knowing these things”, the child said as he described why the falling value of the Turkish Lira relative to the Euro has made it impossible for his parents to fix his computer or buy a new one.

Young people will play a critical role in Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14. Turkey’s population is one of the youngest countries in Europe, with half of the population under the age of 30. Around 6 million new voters will be eligible to cast their votes for the first time this May.

Generation Z and politics

The so-called Generation Z – those born around the turn of the millennium – has often been decried as apolitical in Turkey. However, demographic research into this generation’s views and preferences proves scientifically what things like street interviews have shown anecdotally: these new voters are very much aware of the pressing issues in their country and are ready to get politically involved.

More than half of Turkey’s youth is not satisfied with the current government in Turkey, according to a comprehensive survey  researching people aged between 18 and 25. The main problems commonly cited were poor economic conditions, unemployment, and the low-quality education system.

Young people also oppose government interference into people’s lifestyles and bristle at limitations to free expression in the news or social media, according to a leading Turkish pollster  . They tend to be more liberal than their parents on a range of social issues and are less likely to be influenced by their elders’ voting preferences.

As Gen-Z makes up a large percentage of the Turkish electorate and data show widespread dissatisfaction with the current administration, it is not surprising that both the ruling party and the opposition see youth votes as central to electoral victory.

Fight for the "hearts and minds" of young people

In a recent meeting that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanheld with youth, he declared, “God willing, in the elections on May 14, all of you valuable youth who will be voting for the first time will make us your allies”. The ruling AKP has also nominated several young people as MP candidates, including 18-year-old Nisa Alptekin, whose father is an AKP founder.

The opposition coalition, known as the “Table of Six” and led by Republican People’s Party Chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has also been wooing the youth vote. At a recent event, he told the youth in attendance, “Those who will be going to the ballot and voting for the first time will be the ones to determine the Republic of Turkey’s fate”.

Of these competing attempts to win Gen Z votes, President Erdoğan may have the most uphill road. With the AKP in power since 2002, new voters have known no other government throughout their lives. Though not all youth vote for the opposition, it is revealing that 62.5% of young people say they would leave Turkey if they had the chance . This includes even young people who support the AKP and its coalition partners, but who similarly cite unemployment and economic challenges as reasons for wanting to move to places like Germany or the United States.

Given the serious grievances young people have with the current situation in Turkey, the AKP’s campaigns directed toward Gen Z have recently been criticised for being out of touch. A recent video  that left many viewers scratching their heads was shot in a university canteen. Its message was that young AKP-supporting men have to hide their political views in order to attract liberal women.

Another official AKP campaign video was quickly deleted from social media after viewers noticed that the background music was American rapper Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” with its description of an outlaw life on the fringes of society. This is not the first time  the AKP’s attempts to reach out to the youth have backfired, in a phenomenon that scholar Lisel Hintz and I have described elsewhere as “boomer fails”.

The main opposition, in contrast, is not using rap songs or highly visible but mostly symbolic young MPs to court the youth vote. Instead, Kılıçdaroğlu and his allies are using their speeches and campaign videos to focus on the issues that research has shown youth are most concerned about: unemployment, nepotism, restrictions on lifestyle, quality of education, and declining purchasing power.

The role of social media

Social media have also become a key battleground for opposition youth organising their own grassroots protests. Young Izmir-based graphic designer and organiser Mahir Akkoyun became famous overnight when he was taken into police custody on April 7 and accused of insulting the president and disrupting public order for a Twitter campaign focused on the economic crisis. He had released a series of stickers that were designed to be posted on supermarket shelves. These have a picture of the president and read, “Think this product is expensive? You can thank Erdogan!”.

Platforms like TikTok have also become a key part of the scramble for youth votes after Kılıçdaroğlu and the other opposition parties realised that the ruling parties had poured money into pro-government content on the app with roughly 30 million users in Turkey. Since then, the opposition has been playing catch-up thanks to Kılıçdaroğlu's increasingly popular videos. These show that the opposition has been spending the necessary time and effort to meet young people where they are.

Turkey’s youth is too politically savvy to fall for pandering or window-dressing. Therefore, political parties will only be able to secure young people's votes if they concretely address the issues that most concern them.

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