On June 7, Turkish citizens went to the polls to elect the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly. Although the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 41 percent of the vote, it lost its majority in the parliament for the first time since 2002. It was a major blow for the party’s founder, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose plan to become a more powerful executive with fewer checks and balances seems to have been vetoed by the electorate. On the other hand, the deciding factor in the elections was the impressive success of the leftist, Kurdish-majority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won 13 percent of the votes (up from 6.5 percent in 2011). The HDP received this additional support mostly from conservative Kurds who had previously voted for Erdoğan’s AKP, as well as from many progressive Turks.
The AKP came to power in 2002 with the support of millions who had been marginalized by the oppressive Turkish state. Over the past 13 years, the country has witnessed the transformation of the AKP from a peripheral political party into the very embodiment of the state. During the 2015 campaign, the AKP marshaled the economic and administrative resources of the state to an unprecedented extent to boost its own chances. President Erdoğan, who is supposed to be above partisan politics according to the constitution, stumped on behalf of the AKP, holding daily hours-long rallies that most of the major television channels (state-run as well privately owned) were told to broadcast live. Large state-owned companies such as Turkish Airlines ran lengthy TV commercials reminding people of the AKP’s achievements. Yet, despite all of these efforts, the AKP lost 20 percent of the support it had in the previous legislative elections.
Along with Kurds, who steered away from the AKP for various reasons, including the government’s stance on the Kurdish resistance to ISIS in the Syrian town of Kobane, youth seem to constitute another social group that increasingly sees its future elsewhere. According to an opinion poll conducted right before the election, 29.5 percent of voters below the age of 23 backed the AKP. More surprising, the HDP came in second among youth with 23.8 percent support.
Two summers ago, thousands of young people took part in the Gezi Park protests against the perceived rise of authoritarianism. One outcome of Gezi is the organization called Oy ve Otesi (Votes and Beyond), which mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers to monitor the integrity of the June elections. The example of Oy ve Otesi points to the rising importance of active participation by youth in electoral politics.
While the Gezi uprising was a point of departure for some youth to look collectively for alternative ways to make political change, it was also a point of comparison for the AKP’s politicians to define the values they find desirable in youth. President Erdoğan repeatedly announced that his party’s aim is to cultivate a “pious generation,” and opined that “this country’s youth are not the vandals at Gezi.” Reflecting a decades-long Islamist tendency, the AKP government has allocated extensive resources to generate youth-led social change through its educational and cultural policies. The AKP’s recent emphasis on reviving the “authentic” Turkish-Islamic civilization (medeniyet) reflects this project. As an overarching framework, the idea of giving new life to “our civilization,” through the cultivation of “the medeniyet vision” among youth, increasingly informs the AKP’s cultural policies aimed at youth as well as the policies of Islamist-oriented foundations with ties to the AKP government. But the relatively low level of support among young people for the AKP suggests that they have other, more pressing concerns.
In a country with high rates of youth unemployment and youth poverty, it comes as no surprise that young people are making political choices that are different from those of the general electorate. Turkey may have to hold snap elections in the upcoming months if a coalition government cannot be formed, but the results of the 2015 balloting point to several significant shifts in the political choices of the Turkish people, especially of youth, although the AKP continues to be the most popular one.