Turkish Youth Seek Change as Erdogan Faces Toughest Election Challenge Yet

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, in Ankara, Turkey April 30, 2023. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

As Turkey gears up for presidential and parliamentary elections, a significant number of young voters, including five million first-time voters, are hoping for a shift in leadership. The 23-year-old Istanbul student, Perit, who was jailed for participating in a protest against the appointment of a pro-government dean at Bogazici University, expresses his concerns about another victory for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stating that it would result in a nightmare for the country. Perit, along with his friends Sude and Emru, have known no other Turkish leader than Erdogan and feel that after two decades in power, it is time for a change.

Young people in Turkey face increasing challenges, including soaring inflation, which currently stands at 44% according to official figures. Emru highlights the need to work full-time alongside studying to make ends meet. Sude shares her fears about expressing her emotions or opinions, as she has faced attacks and even received a suspended jail sentence for attending protests at Bogazici University.

The upcoming election presents Erdogan’s toughest challenge yet, as he faces opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, representing a bloc of six parties with additional support from opposition groups. With millions of first-time voters, constituting almost 8% of the electorate, many view them as the largest group of undecided voters. Salih, aged 20, strongly supports Erdogan, emphasizing his charismatic leadership and ability to invest in Turkey’s future. Salih believes Erdogan has resolved energy and military dependence issues while promoting domestic production of cars, drones, and aircraft.

All the presidential candidates, including Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, have attempted to attract young voters. Erdogan has emphasized technological and defense advancements, while Kilicdaroglu promises greater freedoms and improved employment prospects. Gizem, a 20-year-old first-time voter, credits Erdogan with lifting the ban on headscarves in universities and the civil service, enabling women like her to pursue education freely. However, some argue that Erdogan’s recent decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, designed to protect women against domestic violence, has alienated many women and sparked large-scale protests. Concerns have been raised about the presence of an extreme Islamist party within Erdogan’s People’s Alliance, causing unease among female MPs within his own AK Party.

The votes of women, constituting 50.6% of the electorate, will also play a decisive role. Conservative women previously supported Erdogan but are now showing signs of dwindling support, partly due to his controversial remarks about women’s roles and his stance on gender equality. Critics argue that women’s freedoms have been curbed, citing instances of attacks on women for their attire and the prosecution of artists and musicians for expressing their views.

With a closely contested race, the support of young voters and women will be crucial. Opposition parties fear that the presence of two additional candidates appealing mainly to young voters may divide the opposition vote and force a second round run-off. To secure an outright victory on election day, a candidate must secure more than half of the votes.

As Turkey heads to the polls, young voters and women stand poised to make their voices heard, with hopes of shaping a new political landscape that embraces their aspirations for change, greater freedoms, and improved opportunities.