ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish student Azelya Celik works late into the night typing up notes on molecular biology before grabbing a few hours sleep and heading into university – not to attend lectures but to support protests she says are crucial to shaping her country’s future.
Celik is one of hundreds at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University who have protested for a month against the appointment of a university rector by President Tayyip Erdogan, a move the students say was undemocratic.
The demonstrations at the university, which overlooks the Bosphorus on the city’s European side, grew this week as crowds took to streets elsewhere in the city and the capital Ankara.
Although dwarfed by protests which swept Turkey eight years ago, the demonstrations have defied authorities for four weeks and highlight a critical obstacle to Erdogan’s hopes of extending his rule into a third decade at the next election – disaffected young Turks who think he has nothing to offer.
Police have detained over 600 people since Jan. 4 and the government has strongly criticised the protesters, labelling them terrorists.
Istanbul neighbourhoods have lent the students noisy support, banging pots and pans from their balconies at 9 p.m. The United States has expressed concern at the detentions, and condemned the language used by officials against demonstrators.
“We are holding art exhibitions, our friends are meditating outside the (rector’s) building and we are being called terrorists,” 25-year-old Celik said.
The protests against the rector were about “the right to be able … to have a say in the future of the country,” she added, speaking outside the campus where barricades have been set up and riot police stationed for the past month.
“They want us to only study, put our heads down and not say anything about the future of the country. But that’s not how it works.”
Erdogan said on Friday he chose the rector from a list of nine names submitted by education officials – a process he had done twice before.
‘GENERATION Z DOESN’T KNOW’
Erdogan said there would be no repeat of the nationwide protests in 2013, when hundreds of thousands of people marched in Istanbul and elsewhere in the biggest popular challenge to then-premier Erdogan.
But after nearly two decades in power championing Islamic values and religious education aimed at raising a “pious generation” of Turks, the president has conceded that not everyone remains receptive to his message.
Those born after the mid-1990s, or Turkey’s Generation Z who have few memories of life before Erdogan took power in 2003, don’t appreciate his party’s achievements, he said last week. That presents a challenge in elections due in 2023.
“Those who did not live in the old Turkey, our youth who didn’t suffer those troubles … we are struggling to tell them the importance of Turkey’s gains,” Erdogan said in parliament, pointing to huge advances in health and infrastructure.
“Generation Z doesn’t know what state our patients were in at our public hospitals when (the opposition) was in charge.”
Successive polls have shown a gradual erosion of support for Erdogan’s AK Party, partly because of economic slowdown in the last three years after a 15-year boom of 5% annual economic growth. That has left the AKP dependent on an alliance with nationalists for its parliamentary majority.
Critics say a crackdown following a 2016 coup attempt has muzzled dissent, with more than 90% of the media controlled by the government or its business allies, and new regulation putting potential constraints on social media companies.
Celik and other students say they bypass Turkey’s media to get their news. Young people “no longer consider information they get from TVs and mainstream media as correct,” she said.
Kemal Ozkiraz, founder and chairman of Avrasya polling company, told Reuters the government was losing touch with the youth and that only around a third of some 5 million new eligible voters in 2023 would support the AK Party.
Ozkiraz was citing a survey last month based on face-to-face interviews with more than 5,000 people in some 25 cities across Turkey.
“While the youth expect promises, hopes and dreams about the future, the AK Party is promising them the past,” he said.
A senior AKP official said polling which suggested younger voters would lean towards other parties at the next election was not realistic and ignored the opportunities which Erdogan’s government had provided.
“Our duty as politicians is to catch up to them mentally, show them the realities. We are doing our best to keep their hopes alive,” the official said.
Increasingly disenchanted, more young people are looking to move abroad, Avrasya’s Ozkiraz said, citing a survey of 8,000 people in September that showed 76% of people between the ages of 18-29 wanted to emigrate.
Korcan Yaksi, a master’s degree holder from Bogazici University, is moving to Canada this year.
“In the last five to 10 years, this country has made me feel like I don’t belong here. I cannot see myself living in Turkey in the long term, nor can I dream of a future here,” the 29-year-old LGBT man said.
The biggest factor for him was “the discriminating and violent rhetoric used by politicians in Turkey constantly in an effort to marginalize me and people like me.”
The AK Party sees the LGBT community as a threat against family values which hold society together.
According to official data, the number of people who emigrated from Turkey in 2019 increased by 2% from the previous year to 330,000. More than 40% of those who moved abroad were aged between 20 and 34.
Authorities say the number of Turks leaving is more than compensated by other 677,000 people who moved to Turkey.
Celik, the biology student, said she was also considering leaving Turkey, saying AKP governments had ruined a school system that enabled her to get into one of the country’s most prestigious universities despite her modest background.
Pointing to changes in the education system and syllabus, including a 2017 decision to remove evolution from school lessons, she said the moves looked foolish now as the government warned people about the evolving COVID-19 strains.
“We’re seeing now what coronavirus is doing to us, they are talking about mutations. I say: ‘So evolution didn’t exist?’”
As a woman and LGBTI+ person, Turkey also felt unsafe, she added.
“The only place I felt safe was this school,” she said of Bogazici. “You cannot imagine how much it upsets us to see this school in this way … encircled by barricades everywhere.”
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