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Turkey’s first-time voters rally around opposition in crucial polls

Many of the five million first-time voters, who have never seen a Turkey without President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20 years of rule, express hope for a change in the crucial twin polls on May 14.
Turkey youth

Izmir, TURKEY — “10 GB of free internet per month, that’s rich,” says Kaan Erdinc, a 19-year-old first-time voter in the coastal town of Izmir, mocking incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to university students. “This government has already blocked half of the sites I’d want to use.”

Erdogan is holding a large meeting half a mile away, but Erdinc opts instead to sit with his friends at a sidewalk cafe. Like many of the young people interviewed, he talks to Al-Monitor only under a pseudonym. The first-year law student fears speaking frankly to foreign media may get him in trouble with his university, whose rector he describes as a “die-hard Erdogan supporter” and accuses of “chasing away all the good professors” because they oppose the government.

“Why would I want to hear him speak? I have been listening to Erdogan all my life and look where we are — neither my passport nor my diploma would take me anywhere,” he tells Al-Monitor ahead of the crucial election on May 14. Polls indicate a neck-and-neck race, with opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu appearing to have a slight edge in the second round, scheduled for May 28. Bekir Agirdir, the director of the KONDA polling company and known for his cautious estimates, places Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), two to five points ahead of Erdogan.

Tall and athletic, Erdinc is one of the five million very diverse young voters who will go to the polls for the first time, according to the Turkish Institute of Statistics. Pollsters’ opinions on their choice varies, though many say it leans to the opposition. However, most agree that the young voters are the largest group in undecided votes.

What I want, I really, really want

Erdinc says he has made up his mind on whom he will not vote for. However, he admits who he will vote for is more complicated because no candidate “truly represents him” or he considers “a politician of the 21st century.”

His two friends nod. One of them, who laughingly declines to be interviewed, has the signature of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey, tattooed on his forearm. Such tattoos are common in Izmir, a liberal city known as a stronghold of the opposition. 

Despite the pressure from his peers and parents, Erdinc says he hesitates about Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old retired civil servant. “Kilicdaroglu simply does not excite me. But it is either him or Muharrem Ince,” he says, referring to the bombastic castaway from the CHP. “I will vote whoever’s against Erdogan in the second round.”

Two leading pollsters, TEAM and Turkiye Raporu, maintain that Ince, who emerged as a favorite with the 18-25 age group, is beginning to lose his shine, particularly after he flew off the handle at a youth open-mic event.

“Lesson number one for an aspiring politician: do not patronize young people,” quips Can Selcuki, economist and pollster who runs Istanbul-based Turkiye Raporu. 

Young voters have lost faith in traditional politics, Selcuki told Al-Monitor. “We polled 3000 young people back in October 2021, and when we asked them which institutions they trusted — justice, police, military, parliament — most said none." That makes them vulnerable to populism, he said, "and Ince is a populist politician by excellence. His vote is eroding, but not as fast as we would like to see.”

Celebrate youth

Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have been trying to get Gen Z on their side through punchy social media messages, clips and pledges of education and employment prospects. A month ago, Kilicdaroglu made his first appearance on Tik-Tok, promising young people that discriminatory questions would be banned in job interviews. Further videos aimed at youth followed, including the viral video where he explained his Alevi identity.

On May 1, Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed co-chair of the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), who still has a vast pull over Kurdish voters, appealed to the youth. “My young friends, vote for change,” he said. HDP, which risks closure, is fielding its parliamentary candidates under the Green Left Party but supports Kilicdaroglu for the presidency. 

On the other hand, Erdogan has been trying to woo the young with tales of glory in defense and technology. His speeches and clips aim to show how the Justice and Development Party’s two-decade reign has opened more universities, state dormitories and sports centers. 

But for many young people, like Erdinc, the campaign speeches feel hollow due to the reality of banned spring festivals and popular websites, such as Wikipedia, which had been blocked for three years; brutal clashes of protests against unpopular rectors forced on the universities, harsh punishment against civil disobedience and rising youth unemployment. The ruling party’s alliance with two conservative parties with misogynic agendas irked young conservative women. Even the pro-Erdogan camp admits privately that the president has “lost the young vote,” mostly by small things such as angry remarks to students, festival bans or court cases against popular singers.

Selcuk Sirin, professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of “Grow Up, Youth,” writes in his weekly Oksijen column that the number of Turkish youth who are not working or in school "equals the entire population of Norway. The young people are mostly unhappy with the way the country is heading. They are fed up with nepotism, lack of justice, and pressures on all walks of life. ... They want more freedoms and justice — they want hope for the future.”


For Selim Oner, the hope still lies in Erdogan. “Turkey is no longer a lackey of the Western countries, thanks to him,” he boasts. Oner, in his early twenties, admits that life is harder in the last two years and that his father’s furniture store is struggling in Gaziemir, one of the working-class districts of Izmir. But he adds, “I do not think the opposition can do a better job, either economically and politically.”

His younger sister, who works with him at the store, says she will not vote for the ruling coalition but the right-wing Good Party at the parliamentary polls. Her brother scoffs as she claims she will decide her presidential choice “once in front of the ballot box.”

A recent poll by Turkiye Raporu says 89% of young people planned to go to the polls. “So far, the young votes go to Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan, and Ince, in declining order. But while the young people are the smallest group in the overall vote of Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan, it is a top group with Ince,” Selcuki says, predicting that the young voters may gravitate toward the two leading presidential candidates. How fast they turn will determine whether the president will be selected in the first round or the run-off. 

“Most of the young people do not own their parent’s fight. For a conservative young woman, the headscarf is a non-issue. She is not worried that she would be banned from the university for wearing a headscarf,” Selcuki says. “Also, for a young secular liberal, seeing a doctor or a civil servant in a headscarf is not a problem. They are interested in more concrete issues, such as solutions to the education problem, jobs, justice.”

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