Erdogan’s party seeks power for a generation

For Erdogan to get through the coming period of economic instability, he needs to have young people on his side.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Supporters of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) attend a rally in Eskisehir in north-western Turkey, last June. (AP)
Across generations. Supporters of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) attend a rally in Eskisehir in north-western Turkey, last June. (AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his advisers are nothing if not blessed with foresight.

After Erdogan emerged victorious in last year’s closely fought referendum to enact an executive presidency, data emerged that worried him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Of all the demographic groups that supported the president and his causes in the many elections he has fought and won, young people were less inclined to back him.

The statistics moved Erdogan to embark on a campaign to embrace Turkey’s youth. After the referendum, he introduced a law that reduced the minimum age for election to parliament from 25 to 18. He added people in their early 20s to the inner circle of the AKP’s elite council, the Central Decision and Executive Board.

“Young people will not be ordered around. We will work alongside you,” he told attendees at an AKP youth congress. “There is no other political party in Turkey that trusts young people and relies on them as much as we do.”

Erdogan has been rewarded for the outreach. In last month’s election, several parliamentary seats went to young, tech-savvy AKP members. By adjusting its message to directly address young voters, the AKP is setting in motion a project that could see it control the country for a generation.

More than 1.5 million first-time voters were eligible to vote in June’s presidential and parliamentary elections. They are part of a new generation, one that has not lived through the 1980s or 1990s, a time when stores were filled with only the most basic goods.

The 1980s and 1990s were also a time that services such as electricity and waste disposal were patchy at best. Back then, political stability was almost always out of reach and military coups and minority government coalitions resulted in political and economic stagnation.

Today’s 18- to 20-year-olds make up a cohort that has only lived with Erdogan in power. During Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has been physically and economically transformed and national pride has been restored.

Young people, of course, have been told by their parents and grandparents how much better the standard of living is today. This point is largely acknowledged by both Erdogan’s supporters and opponents.

Turkey’s young have come of age during a period of unbroken economic growth and expansion but what would happen if the economy slowed? What if the mortgages and jobs that have been so plentiful over the past decade dry up? Though Erdogan has defeated all comers and overcome all challenges during his 15 years in power, he and his party are facing a period of economic uncertainty.

Inflation has breached the 15% mark, the highest since the AKP rose to power. Unemployment in the 18-24 age group is more than double the national average for men and five times that for women.

It’s worth remembering that Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir voted against Erdogan’s proposed executive presidency in 2017. Turkey has more urban young than when Erdogan led the AKP to power. Young city-dwellers have risen from 65% to 84% in the past 17 years. Perhaps the AKP’s faltering hold on urban centres is down to the government’s on-off blocking of websites such as YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia.

It’s one thing to lock up journalists, activists and supposed “opponents of the state” but it’s entirely different when the economy grinds to a halt and restless young people look for someone to blame. They are the ones most susceptible to unemployment and economic insecurity.

For Erdogan to get through the coming period of economic instability, he needs to have young people on his side. If he can do that, and who would bet against him and the young AKP apparatchiks he has taken into the fold, Erdogan’s party could be at the helm for decades.

That said, it remains to be seen whether Erdogan will be able to maintain control if the wheels start to come off the economy.

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