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Turkey elections: The battle for five million first-time voters

Who do young Turkish voters believe best represents their future? At least five million are expected to make their voice heard
Youths sit with their skateboards in front of a graffiti mural on the street in Istanbul, on 28 April 2023, ahead of Turkey's presidential elections on 14 May (AFP)
By Elis Gjevori in Istanbul

More than five million new voters are expected to cast their ballot for the first time in the elections on 14 May in Turkey.

Their participation in the elections and the size of their turnout is set to be an important factor in potentially swinging the outcome of the vote in a tight race between incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main secular opposition party, the CHP, or Republican People's Party.

According to Ozer Sencar, the director of MetroPoll, a Turkish polling organisation, 78 percent of voters in the 18-24 age group have expressed their intention to vote, a rate lower than the general population, at above 80 percent. 

“In our April polling results, half of young voters prefer Kilicdaroglu,” Sencar told Middle East Eye.

“Kilicdaroglu is by far the most preferred candidate amongst voters in the 18-24 age group. Erdogan can get around 30 percent of the vote in this age group.” 

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With the election date only days away, Sencar said “young people in Turkey, regardless of their socio-economic status and political beliefs, have similar worries about their future, particularly related to the prevailing uncertainty.

“The main reasons for this uncertainty are the current state of Turkey’s economy and the quality of education in the country.”

'We need a more livable Turkey'

Zeybek, a 21-year-old student from Marmara University studying industrial product design, reflected a common sentiment among her peers and the political polarisation that has swept Turkey in recent years. 

“I do not want politics and the state to be on my agenda in my daily life, I don’t want to be affected by politics that much,” she said. 

Zeybek, who was 16 years old when the elections were held last in 2018, is adamant that her preferred candidate is Kilicdaroglu.

Her friend, Kaan Eroglu, 21, a mathematics undergraduate at Bogazici University, called the elections a “crucial turning point for the country”. He is also contemplating leaving Turkey.  

“We need some changes for a more livable Turkey. As Turkish people, we’re divided too much and we need to get together again,” said Eroglu, adding that Kilicdaroglu is the man to bring about that unity." 

In recent years, there has been a growing perception among young people that meritocracy is no longer sufficient to rise up the ranks in public institutions. 

Kaan Eroglu, 21, undergraduate at Bogazici University studying mathematics (MEE)

“What is important for me in these elections is the end of the injustice and rudeness that we have been subjected to for a while,” said Zeybek. 

“I think the problem for young voters like me is to get what they work for and not be treated unfairly. When we make an effort for something, we want to get it. It drives us crazy to see that people who don't deserve it, people who don't succeed, are in better places than we are.”

'Nationalistic feelings'

Turkey's economic crisis, the quality of education and future job prospects are concerns that are widely shared by young people across the political divide. 

Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu have sought to appeal to the youth vote in recent years. 

The country’s largest technology event, Teknofest, organised by the government and Selcuk Bayraktar, the man behind Turkey’s drone programme and Erdogan’s son-in-law, has sought to draw in young talent from across the country. 

'Kilicdaroglu is also sadly known as a loser. He’s been the leader of the opposition for more than a decade and nothing changed in Turkey'

- Furkan, 21, student 

It has also become an opportunity for the government to show that it can still generate ideas and events meant to inspire young people in the fields of cutting-edge technology. 

“It is evident that Erdogan is trying to appeal to the nationalistic feelings of the new generation with his campaign focused on the defence industry,” said Sencar, adding that “technological developments such as the defence industry also show an effort to increase young voters’ positive expectations for the future with Erdogan”.

In turn, the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu has sought to appeal to young people’s sense of freedom. 

On the campaign trail, the opposition presidential candidate makes heart emojis with his hands and tells young people they can criticise him however much they want without fear. 

“Kilicdaroglu, on the other hand, draws the attention of young people with his promise of change, freedom and catching up with world standards,” said Sencar.

Basak, 20, a medical student at Biruni University in Istanbul and a first-time voter, is fully aware of the difficulties the country is undergoing. 

Expressing a mixture of ​excitement and confusion over the elections, she is certain that her vote is going to Erdogan. 

“I think at this moment of economic turmoil, the most important thing would be the betterment of living conditions and improvement of job opportunities,” she said.

For Basak, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) remain the best option to improve the state of the economy “despite their mistakes” in power.

“My commitment is not an emotional one. I approach the matter from a more practical side. And I don’t see how the other six-party coalition can fulfil what they promised. They are more superficial in what they are trying to do,” she added. 


Not all support for Kilicdaroglu is enthusiastic and effusive, however.

“I don’t think the opposition candidate, Kilicdaroglu, is what people are actually into,” says Furkan, 21, who is studying industrial engineering at Kultur Universitesi. 

Furkan will be voting for Kilicdaroglu but said the opposition leader lacks the charisma that has made Erdogan such a formidable political titan in Turkish politics.

“Kilicdaroglu is also sadly known as a loser. He’s been the leader of the opposition for more than a decade and nothing changed in Turkey,” said Furkan. 

“People say one of the biggest reasons Erdogan was in power this long and still has a chance to win the upcoming elections is because of the weak opposition that Kilicdaroglu leads.”

Furkan then breaks into laughter, “What do I know, I’m just a dumb 21-year-old.”

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