Can Turkey's Gen Z tip the scales?
With flag-waving campaign rallies by the various party coalitions, accompanied by TV broadcasts speculating on the possible outcome, Turkey is now in the final phase leading up to the presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections this year are regarded as historic both for the country itself and internationally. If Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate for the opposition faction "Table of Six", ends up winning, the people will have finally voted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP out of office after 21 years of rule.
All the while, the Turkish people have long been wondering: where do the youth, so-called Generation Z, stand politically? These are the young people Erdoğan hoped would become the "religious generation". The question of what they think is crucial, because those born around the year 2000 account for some 13 million of the more than 64 million eligible voters. They represent no less than 20 percent of the electorate. And over six million of them will be voting for the first time.
"Is this a turning point or do we need to leave?"
One person who is excited about the upcoming elections is Zeynep. She is 23 years old and is studying drama at Eskişehir University. "These elections are vital for us," she says. "My friends and I keep saying: either the elections are a turning point or we have to leave the country, even if we don't want to."
Zeynep is one of many who have never experienced a government other than Erdogan's AKP in their lifetime and who believe that political and economic conditions simply have to change. She says that as an actress it is virtually impossible for her to make a living in the current situation. "I'm only 23, but I'm so exhausted," she adds, speaking for an entire generation.
According to the polls, the two presidential candidates Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are running neck-and-neck. No one can predict how the election will turn out. "Sometimes we're hopeful, and other times we feel dejected," Zeynep says. "But none of us can afford to be apolitical. Because we feel like we're the only ones who can make a difference."
For Zeynep, the country's main problem lies in education. "People are kept so ignorant that they don't even realise if developments are good or bad for them. They are encouraged to be grateful and satisfied with just a bare minimum. With good education for both the electorate and the elected, we wouldn't be at the point we are today."
Her wish for the future is to stay put and touch people emotionally with her acting. "I would like to see a future where people who today can't even afford a loaf of bread will be discussing whether to go to the theatre or the cinema in the evening," she says.
"The psychological pressure is extreme"
Kenan likewise tells of the people he knows having to pinch pennies and go from store to store to compare prices. He is 20 years old, lives in Ankara and works in a supermarket. He wants to save money to train as a chef. On 14 May, he will vote for the first time. But he is worried. Riots might break out if the AKP loses, he thinks.
Like many others his age, he is in general not very optimistic. "I think things are going to stay the same. And even if Kilicdaroglu wins, not much will change, for example in the economy. Turkey will need 20 years to recover from all this," he says.
In his view, the desolate economic situation is one of the main problems. "We don't want to have to think about whether we can afford to go to university or get training. We don't want to have to work part-time after school to support our families." Another big problem, he says, is the restriction on freedom of expression.
"We want to be able to talk about everything. At the moment, you can't say anything about our president. The psychological pressure is extreme." Polarisation and hostility have furthermore increased significantly in recent years. Kenan says that as a Kurd he feels this first-hand. "The situation is like it was after the military coup in 1980, only worse. Today, movies, food and everything are way too expensive." In future, he says, he would like to lead a comfortable life and to see better conditions in general, with affordable housing, an increase in the minimum wage and greater purchasing power.
"No appreciation for young people"
Generational researcher and journalist Evrim Kuran knows just how difficult it is to be young in Turkey today amid both global and national problems. "Young people in Turkey are wrestling with unemployment and the resulting lack of prospects; they are plagued by not being able to attain many positions despite their qualifications, and by discrimination, violence against women, and also new inequalities created by the pandemic, by a feeling of desperation that was only reinforced by the earthquake. In short, they are grappling with concerns about the future."
Underlying these concerns is a lack of fairness and equality, she says, as well as the related problem of professional qualifications. "In our country, what counts in both the public and private sectors is not qualifications but loyalty, whether you know someone, whether you have connections." This inequality of opportunity, she says, is causing young people to leave the country.
These comments are confirmed by various surveys that have in the past taken a closer look at Generation Z. The results paint a picture of a generation marked by hopelessness, with young people confirming that they intend to leave the country as soon as the opportunity presents itself. On the political level, respondents indicated that they rejected old ideological categories such as "Ataturkists, nationalists, conservatives" and did not feel represented by the existing parties.
"Young people demand fairness"
And yet the surveys also found that a large proportion of those under 30 still want to vote. "Whenever there are elections, Turkey remembers that it is a young country," the generational researcher said. "But that doesn't change the fact that we are a country that doesn't value its young people." To date, Evrim Kuran has not discovered any leading figures in either the government or the opposition who are able to read young people correctly. The way out of their hopelessness, she says, is to make it clear to them that in a democracy the people rule, and that it is therefore the right and duty of every active citizen to vote.
Moreover, the new generation demands authentic, sincere language that unites rather than polarising – as cultivated in particular by Kilicdaroglu – in contrast to the destructive, discriminatory, outdated political rhetoric favoured by Erdogan, which the young people firmly reject. Among the values shared by millennials from various camps, Kuran found, are fairness and justice.
These young people who reject any single definition of their identity and have a realistic and pragmatic view of the world need above all a climate of security. And hope for the future – something all young people should have.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor