Youth in Revolt

By Ali Friedman:

Most people do not think that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan resembles Adolf Hitler. But Adnan Türkken certainly sees him that way. He proudly held his student political group’s magazine with Hitler’s face superimposed on Erdogan’s. Below the provocative image, the Turkish headline reads: “High Democracy or Fascism?”

Adnan founded and presided over Turkey’s largest student political group, Türkiye Gençlik Birligi, or Turkish Youth Union until 2010. The Union formed in 2006 to oppose Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, called AK Parti. The Union has rejected the AK Parti, known for its strong ties with the West and its social conservatism, and finds political inspiration in Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose portraits cover the walls of the Union’s Istanbul headquarters.

Recep Erdogan speaks at the World Economic Forum. Erdogan is Prime Minister and the head of Turkey’s AK Parti. His government has come under criticism recently as fascist and oppressive. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

“AK Parti is really a fascist party,” said a Turkish student known as Çenk, who recently joined the Union. Indeed, most Union members distrust Erdogan’s government, which has lifted a ban on head-scarf wearing in state offices and universities, and raised the drinking age to 24. Yet despite the anger felt by student group members at such social restrictions, AK Parti dominated the latest elections in June, increasing its support by 3.5 million voters.

Even in light of the AK Parti’s recent success, the Union has steadily increased its visibility, distributing thousands of copies of its publication each month and organizing highly public demonstrations. According to most recent figures, the Union boasts 40,000 followers in total, including active members as well as students 18 years and younger who are banned from officially affiliating with political organizations.

“The partial struggle against AK Parti and the West was not enough,” Türkken said of the time before the formation of his group. “We felt the need to respond to their unjust policies.”

Erdogan’s government has noticed their discontent. Adnan spent a day in jail on charges of terrorism after leading a peaceful protest. Union members Burak Ünlü and Erdem Özdemir of Celal Bayar University were suspended for a term for shouting “Atatürk’s youth on duty” while protesting Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s visit to campus. Last December, members of the Ankara chapter were beaten, tear-gassed, and detained by police during a public demonstration. Measures like these have been counterproductive, said Çenk.

“We’re working against AK Parti,” he explained. “The more oppressive the government, the more revolutionary our group becomes.”

The question that now remains is whether or not student political groups will regain the power they once had in the 1970s and 80s, before student groups were banned outright in 1980 in response to thousands of violent outbreaks on university campuses. Whatever the case, it is clear that the full impact of these radicalized youth on national politics has yet to be seen.

Ali Friedman ’14 is in Pierson College. Contact her at