Beyond ideology, young Turks crave jobs

ISTANBUL – From the bustling streets of Istanbul to the villages of central Anatolia, one question dominates campaigning for tomorrow’s constitutional referendum. What kind of Turkey awaits the country’s burgeoning young generation? Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says government-backed reforms to a charter rooted in a 1980 military coup will strengthen civil society and bring Turkey closer to European norms. For the two-thirds of Turks under 32, it secures a democratic future. Hidden Islamist agenda? The secularist opposition argues the reforms are an attempt by Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to bring institutions such as the judiciary under its control. They suspect it wants to foist a hidden Islamist agenda upon Turkey’s youth, the theocracy a modern Turkey turned its back on 87 years ago. Key parts of the reform package aim to push through involve restructuring the higher echelons of Turkey’s judiciary, dominated by staunch secularists at loggerheads with the AKP. The main amendments modify the make-up of the Constitutional Court and the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which deals with judicial appointments, and the way their members are elected. Erdogan fought back tears earlier this year as he read out to parliament a letter from a 17-year-old activist hanged by the 1980 military regime, adding the amendments would allow the architects of that coup to stand trial in a civilian court. Most Turks today have no personal memories of the coup, whose anniversary falls on the day of the referendum. Young society Youngsters live in a country with one of the highest growth rates in the world, a country with increasing clout on the international stage, but a country where they face high unemployment, barriers to freedom of religious expression and neglect by policymakers, according to a United Nations report. Emre Ilbirligi, 26, is among a group of young men seeking a moment’s respite from the crowds and the heat in the shade of a ferry terminal in Istanbul’s Besiktas district. The skinny taxi driver eyes the «yes» and «no» campaigners mingling in the throng with resignation. «I won’t vote. I disagree with both sides. It’s something I chat about with passengers and they try and persuade me toward one side or the other. What I really wish for Turkey is more wealth and less corruption. I can’t see how this helps.» «These changes bring privileges for the AKP, while the opposition can’t do anything constructive or propose any alternative. They can only oppose,» he adds. Opinion polls show the public is divided over the reform, with the result too close to call. Turkey’s youth gives it a vibrancy and buzz lacking in other European emerging markets, where populations are falling. Money has poured into the country, fueling an economic boom briefly interrupted by last year’s recession, as investors eye a rising domestic market and youngsters’ huge potential spending power. Young people however face an unemployment rate of 25 percent and, according to a 2008 study by the United Nations Development Program, Turkey’s youngsters are unable to develop to their full potential as the country lacks an articulate youth policy and institutions to enforce it. Forty percent of the 12.4 million aged between 15-24 are «invisible,» neither in work nor education and disenfranchised, women particularly so, according to the study. «Young people seem to be the least interested group in the referendum,» said pollster Adil Gur. «According to our surveys, 40 percent of people who say they will not vote in the referendum are aged 18-27. This age group also makes up 38 percent of people who say they have not decided. The economy and new jobs are their biggest concern.» Many youngsters have disengaged from the heated ideological sparring between the government and the secularists, unconvinced this will help improve their lives. Egemen Bagis, the government’s EU chief negotiator, concedes it has been difficult to reach this group, but there is a clear link between greater democracy and greater personal wealth. «Most young people in Turkey were born after the military coup in 1980… It is very difficult for them to understand that only 30 years ago there was a nightmare going on in Turkey and that, if we don’t take the necessary measures, history could repeat itself,» he told Reuters. Youngsters must see that with freedom comes prosperity, he said. «It is no coincidence that all democracies that have given citizens individual rights have somehow prospered. If we take these steps to further democratize our country, we will become richer and create more jobs.» Hijab focus One group of youngsters who show particular interest in the referendum are women who want the right to wear the headscarf, a symbol of Muslim piety, to university. While the proposed amendments alone will not bring any such change, they hope they will give a sign of strong support for the government, emboldening it to once again try to allow the scarf into universities. «I’ll be voting for the first time and the vote is very important to me. It is about more democracy and gaining a better life,» said Zeynep Ayaz, a student in Istanbul who removes her headscarf upon reaching the university campus. «Certainly there is a lot of infighting between politicians and they should do more to find jobs for us. Most of my friends will vote ‘yes,’ and we hope they will then allow us to wear scarves and get higher education.» Kader Eksi, 22, who aims to be a teacher, is hoping for a «yes» win and believes Turkey has nothing to lose. «I don’t understand what the problem is for the opposition. After all, Turks simply wouldn’t allow the government to manipulate or seek advantage from a new constitution. «Turkey is so divided into two camps, although on a personal level people get along. I think the changes will bring greater freedoms and they will benefit all of us.»

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