Erdogan Struggles with Securing the Votes of Young People and Women in Turkey’s Fateful Election

In one of Turkey’s most popular soap operas Kizilcik Şerbeti [Cranberry Sorbet] Nursema, a young conservative woman in love with another man, is married off by her family to another against her own wishes. On her wedding night, in an argument with her new husband she is pushed off the balcony. Miraculously surviving, she confronts both families in a dramatic scene that unleashed a discussion among Turks in social media and on the street.

The question posed on Twitter was: «Who would Nursema vote for?”

The answer to this question will help determine Turkey’s future.

Protesters shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Ankara. NTB / AFP photo / Adem Altan

Turks go to the polls Sunday 14 May in the most important election in Turkey’s modern history. This will be a decisive moment for Turkey’s democracy. Since 2002, the country has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its all-powerful leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

During the latter part of his reign, Turkey has experienced significant democratic decline. After enacting constitutional changes in a popular referendum in 2017, Erdoğan has become increasingly autocratic taking Turkey from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system and expanding his powers as President.

Two turbulent decades under Erdoğan

The two decades of AKP power have been turbulent. Turkey has gone from a country that stood – hat in hand – attempting to negotiate EU membership yet only able to open accession negotiations in 2005. Today, the dream of EU membership is a dream of the past.

Erdoğan sees Turkey’s future as a regional power that does not need EU membership. Instead, he presents a country that is an independent power that negotiates with Russia and Iran over the fate of Syria, plays a critical role in securing grain supplies from Ukraine and Russia, and is a voice for the Global South, capable of impacting developments in the Global North.

The latter is most clearly illustrated by Erdogan’s refusal to admit Sweden as a NATO member. These foreign policy victories are translated into domestic political power, which in turn, feeds into the fervour of right-wing nationalist forces. Not least, the war in Syria has reinforced such currents in society due to the attention given to the critical role played by Syrian Kurds in the war against the “Islamic State.” The deeply unpopular EU-Turkey refugee deal (2016) has led to Turkey hosting 3.7 million refugees, which has also provoked a nationalist backlash. The AKP has cultivated the idea that Turkey stands proud and alone in the world, without friends and reliable alliance partners in “splendid isolation” as the British formulated it in the 19th century.

But the tactic of using foreign policy to garner votes may have lost effectiveness in today’s Turkey, with several ongoing domestic political crises.

The young adults

There are two groups in particular who look grimly at a future with a new AKP government. The first is the young adults. Over half of Turkey’s population is under the age of 31 and 75% of these now live in cities. This shift is important in terms of their lived experiences under an AKP government. The 18–25 age group make up 15% of the electorate and according to a 2022 study supported by the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 62.5% of them were dissatisfied with Erdoğan’s rule.

Despite this, many young people with parents from traditional backgrounds – often coming from smaller towns outside of major urban centres –  have experienced social mobility under Erdoğan. This new “golden generation” were given the opportunity of higher education in the many new educational institutions established during the AKP era. This has led to a tripling of the number of universities with 7.7 million students within higher education in Turkey. Education brings with it expectations for the future.

The young have not themselves experienced the economic crisis that brought Erdoğan’s first government to power in the protest elections of 2002 (the oldest among them being only 10 years old). In fact, most of them have only lived under AKP rule, and despite turbulent years politically, many of AKP’s young supporters have experienced Turkey’s earlier economic growth and the promise of a better future.

This is no longer the case.

The current economic crisis has created sky-rocketing inflation (in December 2022 the official figure was 85% and the unofficial figure was the double). The Turkish lira has plummeted in value in just over a year (60% against the US dollar). According to a survey carried out by the Yöneylem Social Research Center in August 2022, 70% of the population were struggling to pay for food and housing. In a TV report from November 2022, people protested that they could no longer afford to buy bread, because the price had increased by 150% the previous year.

Furthermore, many of these young adults have lived their lives in cities where most have daily interactions with those who have different identities. Despite the fact that the country is deeply polarized today, this contact with other religious and political identities, ethnicities, and world views impacts the younger generation in a more democratic direction. In a study conducted in Turkey by Istanbul Economics Research & Consultancy, 83% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 responded that it was “very important” to live in a country where freedom of expression is protected.

This is far from the case now.

In 2019, Freedom House, an international organization that measures democratic development, labelled Turkey the country that imprisoned the most journalists in the world. In 2023, Turkey received the designation “not free” by the same organization. Even soap operas can fall foul of the authorities. In the days after the controversial and much debated scenes, Cranberry Sorbet received a fine and temporary ban (shortened after the public outcry!).

For the first time in over 20 years, there is now a possibility that Erdoğan will have to give up the throne.

The women

Like the young adults, women are also disillusioned with the AKP. It comes as no surprise that secular women do not vote for the AKP, an Islamic party. However, there is now a movement away from the party also by younger conservative women who in the past have been a mainstay of the AKP electorate. This can partly be explained as a result of the AKP’s attempt to win even more conservative voters by allying itself with parties that want to further restrict women’s rights.

A defining moment for all Turkish women was in March 2021 when President Erdoğan used the presidential decree to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention against violence against women. This international agreement requires governments to pass legislation that prosecutes perpetrators of domestic violence and similar abuse as well as marital rape. This decision by the AKP was seen as particularly worrying due to the sharp increase in reported gender-related violence in Turkey in recent years, and the weak prosecution of those who perpetrate violence.

But ironically, for depicting a scene in fiction that regularly takes place in fact, Cranberry Sorbet was punished by Turkey’s media monitoring authority, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), for allegedly “inciting violence against women”.

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