Young Voters See Little Hope From Turkey’s Elderly Presidential Candidates

With more than half of Turkey’s eligible voters made up of millennials and those from the younger Generation Z, the opposition may think they have a chance to finally unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after 20 years in power.

But while 51 percent of the 64 million voters are young – 20 million voters were born after 1981, including 13 million Gen Zers and six million who are eligible to vote for the first time – they are far from a certainty at the presidential and parliamentary polls on May 14.

Meet Turkey’s Gezi Park generation, an apolitical and politically apathetic group who have grown weary of politics and have little to no belief they live in a functioning democracy. 

In such a crucial election, young people appear to lack a voice or be included in any candidate’s political platform, including that of the 69-year-old Erdogan or his main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74.    

It would seem Kilicdaroglu could benefit from the generational angst. Eight out of 10 Gen Zers believe it is harder to be a young person in Turkey than in any country in the European Union. A report by Turkish researcher KONDA in October revealed that four in five Turks between ages 18 and 30 said they were not affiliated with any political party. Furthermore, 90 percent rated the functionality of Turkey’s democracy five on a scale of 10, and 62 percent said the country is poorly managed. 

These young Turks have never really experienced a time when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Erdogan, were not in power. 

These weren’t exactly the salad days of their young lives. Fifty-four percent of those between 17 and 30 said in a recent survey that they are in need of psychological help. Meanwhile, 71 percent said they are unable to imagine a different future.

Under the two-decade long reign of AKP, young people’s lives have become worse. Although Turkey’s older population argues otherwise, labeling younger generations as ungrateful, the numbers speak a different truth.

Opportunities are scarce for young people amid Turkey’s deteriorating economy. Research shows 69 percent of Turks between the ages of 18 and 29 are financially dependent on their families.  

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is 21 percent among people between 15 to 24, while other estimates put the figure as high as 33 percent. If included with European countries, Turkey has the fifth highest youth unemployment rate in the region. 

The low employment rates do not stem from a lack of higher education. Turkish Statistical Institute  (TUIK) data from 2019 shows the number of unemployed university graduates in Turkey has increased tenfold in the past 15 years. One out of four unemployed people is a university graduate

This has all led to a massive brain drain under the AKP’s watch. According to TUIK, between 2019 and 2021, more than 250,000 citizens aged between 20 and 29 have left the country. And those who have stayed, want to leave – and in big numbers.

Research by Kondrad-Adenuer-Stifftung in 2021 found that 72 percent of those between 18 to 25 would live in another country if given the chance. And who can blame them? In the past two years, the annual inflation rate has risen over 100 percent, the Turkish currency has been mired at record lows and a devastating earthquake has claimed the lives of thousands. All these factors have immensely lowered the living standards of young people in Turkey. No wonder 82 percent believe they are worse off than in 2021. 

The fact the opposition has done so little to woo young voters amid this turmoil is mind boggling. More than 80 percent of young people between 18 and 35 said they do not believe any party can solve their problems, according to an October report by the nongovernmental organization SOMDER. 

The campaign from Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party has made some gestures including a pledge to not tax mobile phone, vehicle and video game console purchases. But this does not appear to be enough to support its promise of a better future for the younger generation. Kilicdaroglu will, however, be buoyed by the response to a video message to young people in which he discussed his Alevi identity. The tweet itself received more than 110 million views.

But the overall tone-deaf approach to young voters highlights an unspoken problem within Turkey: the exclusion of the young from the conversation about the country’s present and future. The age distribution of the current parliament is reflective of the ageism tilted in favor of the older generations. Out of 600 members of parliament 319 are aged 40 and above while only eight are below 30. 

Turkey, with a median age of 31, is considered a relatively young country, but like most countries it is run by people decades older. The upcoming election should represent a generational clash, however neither side is fighting for the rights of the youth. That is why it is safe to call millennials and Gen Zers Turkey’s betrayed generation

Not only have these young people lost all hope for the future, they live with the constant notion that their future has been stolen. Although youth voters have the power to sway elections, they have been bullied into silence and robbed of a will to take part in their own destinies.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and IstanbulArt News. Twitter: @aedecramer