'I don't want to end up like the women in Iran'

Sensing Erdogan election victory, young Turks increasingly ponder life abroad

‘Young people have no more hope,’ says one, as Sunday’s runoff seen as extremely likely to extend incumbent’s hold on power

A giant election billboard of Turkish President  Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the People's Alliance's presidential candidate, during a campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, May 13, 2023. (Emrah Gurel/AP)
A giant election billboard of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the People's Alliance's presidential candidate, during a campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, May 13, 2023. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Hasibe Kayaroglu hoped Turkey’s presidential election would usher in changes.

Instead, days before a Sunday runoff that increasingly looks like a coronation for conservative President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the engineering student is thinking more than ever about living abroad.

“Young people have no more hope. Every night, the only thing we talk about with my roommate is how to leave,” Kayaroglu said.

Five other young residents of Istanbul and Ankara interviewed since Sunday’s May 14 general election have told AFP the same.

They all blame Erdogan, who came within a whisker of extending his two-decade rule until 2028 after a disappointing performance by his secular rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Many more young Turks are discussing leaving on social media, frustrated with their deteriorating outlook and everyday life.

“We live in a beautiful country that is not run properly — and it’s getting worse,” said Emre Yoruk, who is also thinking of following the path taken by tens of thousands of young Turks every year.

“That’s why a lot of young people go abroad.”

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (L), Chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential candidate, takes a selfie with a young woman outside the Anitkabir at the Mausoleum of founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, during the celebration marking the 103th anniversary of the foundation of Grand National Assembly, National Sovereignty and Children’s Day in Ankara, on April 23, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

A survey by the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation published in early 2022 showed a whopping 72.9 percent of Turks in the 18-25 age bracket saying they would live abroad if given the chance.

“This figure is high even among young people supporting the AKP or the MHP,” sociologist Demet Lukuslu, who studies youth culture at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, said referring to Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party and its far-right allies.

“Young people complain about the economic situation, but also about the overall climate, which makes them feel bad and over which they have no control.”

‘Sense of duty’

Polls show Erdogan’s leftist rival being the preferred candidate of young people, who are generally less conservative than their elders.

But Kilicdaroglu won only 44.9% of the national vote, underperforming expectations and trailing Erdogan by nearly five percentage points entering Turkey’s first presidential runoff.

Ezgi, 25, said she has “lost all hope” for Kilicdaroglu and will only be voting Sunday “out of a sense of duty.”

“If Erdogan wins, I will leave Turkey,” said the Istanbulite, who is afraid that disclosing her last name could land her in “trouble.”

Like some other women, Ezgi is particularly uneasy about the election of four lawmakers from the radical Kurdish Islamic Huda-Par party, which has joined Erdogan’s alliance.

The party rejects women’s rights and has ties to groups implicated in extrajudicial killings dating back decades.

Erdogan retained control of parliament on May 14, although his reshaped alliance is even more right wing than before.

“I deeply love my country, but I don’t want to end up like the women in Iran,” said Ezgi, who works in marketing and is thinking of emigrating to the Netherlands with her older sister.

Young men walk in front of collapsed buildings on a street in Antakya, on May 13, 2023, a day ahead of presidential and legislative elections. (Can Erok/AFP)

‘Despicable whims’

Emigration and Turkey’s brain drain did not feature prominently during the campaign, whose second round is being dominated by debates about expelling millions of Syrian and other migrants.

But Erdogan has fulminated about the “despicable whims” of young people, who “knock on the door of other countries just to have a nicer car or a better phone.”

Kilicdaroglu has also urged Turkey’s best and brightest to return and help build a better country.

“Come back, young people. This country needs you,” he tweeted in response to a video by a dozen graduates from a prestigious Istanbul university, who all went abroad but pledged to return should he ask them to.

One of these students, Omer Altan, who is completing his master’s degree in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, thinks Kilicdaroglu still has a chance to come from behind and win.

“He will fight tooth and nail,” Altan said.

“More and more young and old people are considering going abroad,” he added, blaming the “inequalities and corruption” of modern Turkey.

Still, the 25-year-old plans to return regardless of Sunday’s outcome.

“The reelection of Erdogan could also push me to come back to try and do good things. There will be a greater need to do good if Erdogan wins,” Altan said.

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