President’s appointment of political ally as university rector becomes catalyst for disillusioned youth to vent frustrations
A woman is arrested by police during a protest by university students in Istanbul on Tuesday night. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The Guardian –Bethan McKernan Turkey correspondent
Escalating protests over the appointment of a state-approved rector at a prestigious Istanbul university have become an unexpected catalyst for Turkey’s disillusioned and underemployed youth to vent their frustrations at President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
Demonstrations by both staff and students erupted last month over the installation of Melih Bulu, a business figure who stood as a ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) parliamentary candidate in 2015, as rector of Boğaziçi (University, arguably the most acclaimed higher education institution in the country.
The decision to appoint Bulu was denounced as undemocratic by university members, and widely interpreted as a government attempt to infiltrate one of the country’s last left-leaning institutions: Bulu is the first rector chosen from outside the university community since Turkey’s 1980 military coup.
At least 250 people in Istanbul and another 69 in Ankara have been arrested this week, the vast majority of them students, in clashes between protesters and police in the biggest displays of civil unrest in Turkey since the 2013 Gezi Park movement.
Erdoğan said on Wednesday that his government would not allow the Boğaziçi protests to spiral out of control, accusing the protesters of being “terrorists” and “LGBT youth” working against Turkey’s “national and spiritual values”.
Behrem Evlice, a fourth-year political science student, said: “We are so angry right now, and it’s not just Boğaziçi students, it’s students and young people all over Turkey. [The state] has attacked us with the police and violence. They are smearing us with these labels when all we want is a say in how our university is run. Ultimately though there is an economic crisis in Turkey and they know they are going to lose votes … they are just trying to divide people.”
Critics say Erdoğan’s monopoly on power and the undermining of democratic norms have intensified since a failed 2016 coup, after which the presidency reserved the right to directly handpick university rectors. Over the last five years, more than a dozen universities across the country have been shut down.
Almost two decades of AKP rule have placed Turkish institutions and society on a firmly religious and socially conservative path, and the new wave of protests is unlikely to move the political needle in a deeply polarised country in which state repression of peaceful protest has become the norm.
But while many people from older generations are grateful to Erdoğan for building roads and hospitals and raising living standards for the working classes, Turkey’s Generation Z has never known anything other than AKP rule, in recent years defined by political instability and economic turmoil. As such, they represent a new test of Erdoğan’s grip on power.
Despite Erdoğan’s attempts to raise what he calls a “pious generation”, young people who are out of work and turning away from religion appear to be rejecting his vision of Turkey’s future.
People born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s make up 39% of Turkey’spopulation of 82 million, and there will be about 5 million new voters in the next general election, scheduled for 2023 – a demographic shift that could have huge implications politically as the AKP’s voting margins continue to thin.
“Youth unemployment is a staggering 29% in Turkey, and our latest research shows that 37.9% of new graduates are unemployed, which suggests that the rate is going up even further,” said Can Selçuki, general manager of the consultancy Istanbul Economics Research.
“Two things stand out to me: this group of people is very independent and articulate, and they know what they want – in Gezi we didn’t have that. They complain about working hard and not being able to get on because Turkey is no longer a meritocracy,” Selçuki said.
“Secondly, there is definitely a shift away from the identity politics that currently define so much of the political sphere. Young people don’t care about which politician is providing services, necessarily … They just want the service to exist.”
Senel Can, 26, did not take part in the Boğaziçi protests: he dropped out of high school at 14 and has been busy at his job as a motorcycle courier working to support his mother. But he said he understood the frustrations being vented on Istanbul’s streets this week. “My last job was as a waiter, but the restaurant shut down because of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s impossible to get by. Something has to change.”