First-time voters weigh what they've never known - Turkey without Erdogan
By Birsen Altayli and Canan Sevgili
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Six million first-time voters will effectively decide whether to extend President Tayyip Erdogan's rule into a third decade or opt for something they never knew - Turkey under a different leader.
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With less than 12 months to go before what may be the biggest election in the country's recent history, a large majority of young Turks say they want change but remain somewhat skeptical that the opposition can properly improve jobs, schools and freedoms like free speech.
With about 12% of all voters in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023, youth will be crucial in a very close race for Erdogan and his ruling AK party, pollsters say.
Interviews with almost a dozen Turks between the ages of 18 and 23, from the metropolis of Istanbul to central Anatolia, show that justice, immigration, performance-oriented jobs and transparent economic policies come first.
"I'm not entirely happy with my decision, but I think I'll pick the best of the worst (and support the opposition)," said Damla, 19, a history student in Istanbul, who declined to give a last name.
Economic turmoil and rising inflation have pushed up her cost of living, although she lives with her family and doesn't go out with friends as often.
"I feel like I'm not alive, I'm just trying to survive," Damla said. "If the AKP loses this election, the new government should still feel the pressure of the people."
Polls are shifting, but suggest Erdogan would lose narrowly and his AK Party (AKP) would relinquish its hold on parliament.
However, an informal opposition coalition has not announced a presidential candidate, unconvincing some young voters, and the authoritarian Erdogan has been on a long winning streak since taking the helm in 2003.
The president swung a traditionally secular society in an Islamist direction, turned Turkey into a regional military power, and used the courts to crack down on dissent.
He now faces a tough election campaign largely due to his own unorthodox economic policies, including rate cuts that sent the lira to historic lows and inflation to a 24-year high of 78.62% in June.
The so-called "Generation Z" makes up around 13 million of the 62.4 million Turks who are going to vote next year, according to data from statistical offices and pollsters. Six million will be eligible to vote for the first time.
Murat Gezici, head of polling firm Gezici, said young voters are generally angry with the government but are not attached to any particular ideology and do not fully trust the opposition.
His polls show that Generation Z voters, ages 18-25, are strongly opposed to crackdowns on lifestyle, free speech, and the media. "80 percent of this generation will not vote for the AKP," he said.
Yusuf, 18 and also a first-time voter, said most of the world's economies have been going through tough times after the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
"I think the person who is running our country right now is the best and most suitable leader... I will vote for AK Party because they are making plans to make people comfortable," he said.
"The economy may not be doing well, but that's the case in all countries."
According to official data, youth unemployment in Turkey stood at 20% in April, compared to an OECD average of 10.87%.
Pollsters say the motivation of young voters is a wild card, which contributes to the unpredictability of the election. It could depend on who a group of six opposition parties - who have agreed on common political goals - choose to challenge Erdogan.
"Young people want change," said Mehmet Ali Kulat, chairman of MAK Consulting, whose research shows that 70% of 18-29 year olds support the opposition.
He said younger voters tend to compare their economic prospects to foreign peers, while older voters are more concerned with infrastructure investments like roads and hospitals.
Helin, 21, said her living conditions have deteriorated due to government policies, so she votes for the opposition, but fears her proposals may not effectively address issues in current migration policies or minority rights.
"I think a change of power would at least solve the urgent problems," she said by phone from Ankara.
(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Daren Butler)
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