Uluslararası İlişkiler Araştırma ve Uygulama Merkezi

Uluslararası İlişkiler Araştırma ve Uygulama Merkezi

Şubat 2011

Doç. Dr. Yüksel Taşkın


In the previous weeks university students in various cities of Turkey have suddenly attracted the attention of the public opinion as several student protests and “the ordinary” violence they met from the security forces have become the focus of controversial media coverage. While some circles continued their tradition of criminalizing the protesters as “the alleged fifth column of external forces” or “agents provocateurs” activated by the opposition, the others saw in them a hope of extensive societal protest that could remind the vanguard role of the students that they played in the 1970s. In short, wishful or alarmist thinking seem to cloud once again moderate efforts to understand the relationship between the youth and politics in today’s Turkey. 

At this point, some findings of a two-legged research organized by TÜSES can be utilized to provide further questions and hopefully some tentative conclusions on the rather controversial nature of the relationship. First, an Urban Youth Survey (Kentsel Gençlik Araştırması) was held in 2007 on the urban youth under the supervision of Yılmaz Esmer which included 1203 people between the ages of 16 and 29. Based on some findings of this survey, a second qualitative research titled as The Youth Debates: Political Participation, Problems and Prospects (Gençler Tartışıyor: Siyasete Katılım, Sorunlar ve Çözüm Önerileri) was realized in 2008 with 26 focus groups that were believed to have a representative nature. The participants of a panel on “Youth and Politics” organized by MURCIR at Marmara University, Göztepe Campus on January 13, 2010, also largely benefited from the findings of the aforementioned research.
One of the significant findings of the survey is the absence of a meaningful difference between the values of youth and their parents. This means that, generally speaking, political socialization mechanisms in Turkey seem to be successful in transmitting the values of parents to their children. In the left-right spectrum, 45 per cent of the respondents placed themselves in the center while 34 per cent on the right and 21 per cent on the left. While 9 per cent are closely interested in politics, 60 per cent do not have any interest in it. There is a coincidence between the figures designating those who are closely interested in politics (9 per cent) and those that are active and passive members of political parties (9 per cent). 43 per cent of the respondents believe that “working in the political parties would not solve any problems.” This percentage is very close to that of the cluster that did not vote in the last elections (48 per cent). While only 4.4 per cent of the youth were members of civil society organizations having political ends-- apart from the parties--this rate rises to 7.2 per cent when they were asked whether they participated in any protest agenda circulating in the internet. In terms of these quantitative data, the findings bear a strong resemblance to those of several researches conducted by other groups in the last ten years.

For the qualitative research, three general groups and several sub-groups within them were determined: Those who are actively working in the political parties, those who are actively working in the civil society organizations and those who are not active in any of them. I had assumed the task of organizing focus groups with the members of the parties’ youth branches. Specifically, I organized focus groups with the members of Istanbul branches of AKP (Justice and Development Party), BBP (Party of Great Unity), CHP (Republican People’s Party), DTP (Party of Democratic Society), DP (Democratic Party), EMEP (Party of Labour), MHP (Nationalist Action Party), SP (Felicity Party), ÖDP (Freedom and Solidarity Party) and TKP (Communist Party of Turkey). My main concern was to understand those factors that motivated them to be active members of political parties.

Table I: Determinants of Political Participation

Percentage (2008)



Membership in youth branches of a political party


Active participation in the election campaign of a political party or a candidate


Participation in a political demonstration


Drawing up a petition to the municipality or the related institution about a local problem


Participation in a boycott


Participation in any protest agenda circulating in the internet


Membership of civil society organizations having political ends


It is important to note that parents’ political affiliation is still an important determinant of their children’s ideological preferences. In this regard, some parents actively encouraged their children to attain membership in such center parties as AKP and CHP. While this encouragement is partially relevant for SP and MHP, some other parents seem to be concerned for their children’s affiliation with such parties as BBP on the right and TKP on the left. When we compared politicization stories of those on the right and the left, it is interesting that many right-wing university students in Istanbul had their first political experience in such radical nationalist institutions as Ülkü Ocakları (Idealists’ Hearths), Anadolu Gençlik Derneği (Anatolian Youth Association) close to the Milli Görüş (National Outlook) movement. However, for those on the left, it is not legitimate or practically possible to have their first political engagement in Anatolia. They have to wait until they come to the urban milieus such as Istanbul to start their party activism. Another interesting conclusion was the fact that many on the right and left had a previous contact with certain religious communities, particularly Fethullah Gülen Community. For instance, members of the DTP stated that they have poor Kurdish friends staying in the private dormitories of Gülen Community. Politically, however, they were critical of the movement. Similar stories were also put forward by members of the BBP and MHP indicating the extensive nature of such religious networks.

Ideologically, a common denominator of the interviewed youth is their inclination towards realpolitik analyses especially for international relations. The radical left or right-wingers display a striking timidity and inability to speak in utopian terms when, for instance, compared with their counterparts in 1970s’ Turkey. Despite obvious radicalism of their ideological choices, they easily resort to realistic analyses rather than optimistic-utopian ones. Almost all right-wingers seem to have internalized hierarchical nature of party politics and the approach that could be summarized as “wait your turn to assume important posts.” The left-wingers tend to question such party hierarchies and rarely refer to the speeches of their leaders. Last but not the least, those on the left are distinguished from their rivals on the right, with their middle class and urban backgrounds.

When the data of the first survey is considered, it is difficult to mention the presence of a youth actively interested in politics. It is also impossible to observe a significant gap between the youth and parents in terms of values and political attitudes that they possess. However, the qualitative research uncovers some interesting insights that could be meaningful for the immediate future. A growing body of youth is deliberately preferring activism in the civil society organizations to the political parties. They seem to have gained a considerable experience of problem solving around specific issues rather than “grand problems” of the politics. An interesting observation is about the integration capacity of the political parties. Especially the youth with lower-middle class and peripheral backgrounds are active in political parties since they consider parties as the proper means for upward mobility. In rather terrifying and cosmopolitan milieus of the metropoles, the youth branches of the right-wing parties in particular are still serving as mechanisms of solidarity and intimacy. Lastly, the Islamic communities and local networks (hemşehri örgütlenmeleri) are still influential in attracting a significant portion of the youth. These organizations discourage their affiliates from active involvement in youth politics and prepare them for future careers. They are trying to inculcate a conservative notion of “wait your turn!”-- an approach to which party hierarchies, the state elites and parents would also give their tacit consents.

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Uluslararası İlişkiler Araştırma ve Uygulama Merkezi