First-time and young voters matter in any election. Yet more than ever, in Turkey and across the world, the voting behavior of the young is changing. The youth is making a comeback. Previously disinterested youth are reclaiming the ballot box. 

In the 2018 midterm elections of the U.S., the turnout for the age group 18-29 was 49%, up from 36% in 2014 – which had hit a 74-year low. Likewise, the overall participation in Europe’s parliamentary elections was higher than previously due to the stronger role of younger generations. The elections marked an increase of 14 percentage points among voters below the age of 25 and 12 percentage points for voters between the age of 25 and 39.

The youth are making their voices heard and not let the old folk determine their future, like they did during the UK’s Brexit referendum. According to post-Brexit referendum polls, just over 70% of those aged between 18 and 24 voted in favor remaining within the EU, just under 30% voting to leave it. On the other hand, 40% of those aged 65 and over supported “Remain”, while 60% voted “Leave”.

In the Turkish context, youth voter turnout has long been high. While no conclusive research has been conducted regarding youth participation in elections, Turkey’s continuous 80% turnout rates, regardless of the increase in the total number of voters suggests first-time voters and youths follow the population’s general pattern of high turnout. In Turkey, the importance of young voters has to do with the sheer size of the group and its shifting voting behavior.

Incoming 5 million

According to TURKSTAT data, Turkey hosts close to 5 million citizens comprised between the ages of 14 and 17. By 2023, this entire group will vote, constituting close to 10% of the entire electorate. An additional 40% is made up of students, young adults and young parents between the age of 20 and 44. This massive influx of first-time voters as well as the changing voting behavior of the young will play a determinant role in national elections by 2023.

While we do know younger generations differ markedly from us, very little research has been conducted on their political habits and perspective on the world. But they are not different in the sense that they are addicted to social media. In fact, they have ceased to use Facebook. Politicians eyeing candidacies in 2023 need to understand that their conventional methods will not work with these kids.

There are two reasons why the voting behavior of the young are changing. First, as evidenced by Ayşegül Kayaoğlu in a 2017 paper, economic voting prevails amongst young voters as well. In focus groups we conducted in the cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Adana and Mersin prior to the March 31 municipal elections confirmed those findings. The focus groups dealing with young adults and young parents revealed their decision-making process is very utilitarian.

Younger generations are keen to vote for whomever they think can deliver even if that entails being at odds with their parents or neighborhood. Until recently, young voters largely voted in line with their parents’ political inclinations. This is no longer the case. Increasingly, young urbanites harbors their own opinions which is reflected in their political preferences.

A whole new demographic

The second reason is the emergence of a new demographic of young people that was not part of the electorate before. Our research shows the rise of a religiously conservative group of young adults, mostly young, educated and urbanized parents. Most live in households in which both spouses are income owners. When asked what kind of schools they wish to send their kids, most opted for prestigious “Science” or “Anatolian” high schools. Seemingly, they want their kids to gain a competitive position in the labor market. Again, they follow the pattern of non-alignment with their parents’ inclinations.

The changes in the voting behavior of the young have already yielded some results in Turkey’s municipal elections of 2019. They were the main component in the swing vote that led to the opposition’s victory in many cities across the country, and in particular in Istanbul.

The main challenge for politicians in the lead up to 2023, will be appealing to first-time and young voters. In a break with the past, political debates will have to revolve around policy issues, rather than purely ideological and political cleavages.