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Turkey’s ruling party blunders at youth outreach

The Turkish government's recent attempts to reach out to the country's youth reveal that the generation gap is growing — and might be unbridgeable.

Turkey’s Generation Z is not happy with the government. While the country’s teenagers and young adults are anxious about a future of economic insecurity and political repression, the ruling party’s attempts to win them over with flashy YouTube videos and overblown rhetoric about an illustrious past seem to be increasingly falling flat.

On Oct. 19, the youth branch of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) released a 3-minute political advertisement aimed at the country’s youth, but the video, which took social media by storm, has badly backfired, coming under fire for being out of touch.

The animated video titled “Who Are You?” begins with Bedouins riding camels, with the Kaaba in the background. The voice-over addressing the youth says, “You’re young, you’re just starting out in the world. You have a lot of work and many troubles.” The video repeatedly asks young viewers the question “Who are you?” It answers for them, giving the names of figures from Islamic, Ottoman and Turkish history, including companions of the Prophet Muhammad, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, conservative novelist Sule Yuksel Senler and former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the political mentor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The video culminates with an image of Erdogan and tells viewers encouragingly, “You are Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”

“This video is one of many attempts by the AKP government to use audiovisual media to articulate, disseminate and cultivate a particular understanding of the Turkish nation,” Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at John Hopkins University, told Al-Monitor.

“Like many of the recent videos released by the Defense Ministry commemorating historical battles, the AKP youth video has a heavy militaristic tilt, with themes of conquest and victory. Notions of struggle spill over into political martyrdom with pious individuals persecuted for their beliefs,” Hintz added.

Many young people have responded to the video with anger and sarcasm, showing that the AKP’s vision does not speak to their everyday concerns. On Twitter alone, the video has been quoted over 30,000 times with alternative responses to the question “Who are you?” Some have answered with the names of youth killed during anti-government protests. Others have named victims of femicide, mining disasters or terrorist attacks. Many young people responded that they are not martyrs or heroes but broke and hopeless.

Yusuf Akin, a 21-year-old university student, told Al-Monitor that politicians describe youth as Turkey’s future but ruin their chances at a satisfying life.

“A 17-year-old youth tries to buy a basic cell phone but realizes how excessive taxes are. A 22-year-old is arrested for a Twitter post. A recently graduated 25-year-old is unemployed. Young people of every age have problems, and they are related to how we’re governed,” Akin said.

Occasionally, he added, the resentments of young people overflow. “The problems build up, and in moments like this, they erupt.”

The social media protest over the “Who Are You?” video has triggered a fresh debate about the situation of Turkey’s young people.

According to the findings of the Istanbul Political Research Institute, young people's grievances focus on unemployment, the education system and unequal opportunities. Recent surveys show that 50.2% of people aged between 15 and 19 are unhappy. One in four is unemployed. More than 62% want to move abroad.

“They see immigration as their only way out,” Seren Selvin Korkmaz, co-founder and director of the institute, told Al-Monitor.

Young people crave better wages and working conditions, but they are also focused on issues like freedom of speech and the ability to define their own lives.

“Every campaign that uses condescending language to tell young people who they are is problematic. This approach reveals how distant the government is from the youth and their demands,” Korkmaz said.

Evin Arslan, a 23-year-old reporter, thinks the government’s rhetoric shows a lack of sensitivity. “I’m not Fatih Sultan Mehmet or Kara Fatma (heroine of the Turkish War of Independence). I’m a young person trying to live. These kinds of videos don’t fix our problems,” she told Al-Monitor.

For 25-year-old Dilek Sarigul, who works in social media, the video of the AKP’s youth branch reveals a more general problem with the government’s polarizing rhetoric.

“This video focuses on conservative and nationalist personalities, showing these groups as superior. Similarly, the government gives preferential treatment to those who are like them and ignores those who aren’t. While people with connections get jobs, qualified young people are brought to the point of suicide,” Sarigul told Al-Monitor.

The government is aware of youth discontent. In an Oct. 19 speech, Erdogan echoed a longstanding theme about the AKP’s inability to establish cultural hegemony.

“When we take stock honestly of the last 18 years, I think we haven’t secured the desired advancement in education, schooling and culture. We have a young population but haven’t realized our vision of civilization,” Erdogan said during an opening ceremony at Ibn Haldun University.

For many years, one of the AKP’s biggest challenges has been reaching out to Gen Z, which will be a voter force to reckon with in the next elections, scheduled for 2023.

This generation, which makes up roughly 15% of Turkey’s population, has little memory of the country before the AKP, which came to power in 2002. The government’s discourse of an impoverished and anti-religious “old Turkey” versus a strong and pious “new Turkey” is of little relevance to them. Instead, they compare the relatively prosperous Turkey of their childhood with the economically embattled country today.

An estimated 6 million new voters will go to the polls in 2023. Aware that Gen Z’s votes will be crucial, the AKP has attempted to reach out — yet in ways that often confirm, rather than bridge, the generation gap.

According to Akin, “The songs, posters and videos that the government uses to ‘woo’ us are often corny. Their idea of youthful design is childish.”

For Korkmaz, the video of the AKP’s youth branch is another sign that the government refuses to take Gen Z seriously. “Unfortunately, Turkish politics still does not accept youth as political subjects. Instead of offering them a participatory political space in which to realize themselves or providing them with solutions to their problems, they just send them ‘sympathetic’ messages,” she said.

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