ANKARA: Yusuf Ziya Guler is one of nearly seven million Turks who grew up with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their only leader and who can vote for the first time in general elections due by mid-2023. Like his peers, Guler has faded memories of Turkey's economic revival during Erdogan's first decade in power - and a clear impression of the turmoil during his second one.

"I am pessimistic about the future," said the 20-year-old medical student, adding he was skeptical of all political parties. "We're an unpredictable country. Forget about what will happen after I graduate, I don't even know what will happen in five months," he told AFP.

Analysts think Gen Z voters - as politically diverse as Turkey itself - hold one of the keys to Erdogan's tricky path to presidential re-election and his ambition to keep his Islamic-rooted party in power for a third decade running. But unlike the youth of 2002, when Erdogan's rise represented a break from systemic corruption and economic stagnation, today's teens appear more tempted to blame his government for their woes.

These include runaway inflation, a battered currency and an economy in which more than 40 percent of the workforce earns the minimum wage. "Today's dire economic situation will only widen the gap between what the (ruling party) can provide and what young people want," said Ayca Alemdaroglu, associate director at Stanford University's Program on Turkey.

Trying TikTok

Erdogan, 67, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) appear acutely aware of the importance of winning over young people, staging rallies and trying to figure out ways to reach teens online. This push has gained added attention as speculation swirls that Erdogan may call an early election in an effort to catch his competitors off guard. "The key to the next elections is our youth, not this or that party," Erdogan told the opening of a six-day festival for young people in the capital Ankara in Nov 2021.

"Just following the president's and other party leaders' speeches... you can see that young people are a serious concern," said Alemdaroglu. The ruling party's efforts to woo this important demographic got off to a shaky start. A brief furor erupted in Sept 2021 over a TikTok account called XYZ Sosyal, which opposition media said was an AKP attempt to endear itself to Gen Z voters with jokes and pro-government clips.

XYZ Sosyal has since vanished but the official AKP youth branch now has a small verified account featuring a video about Erdogan's achievements in office. Alemdaroglu said the AKP has also compiled reports aimed at teaching "party cadres how to use digital technology effectively and speak to young people".

'Great work'

Despite historically low public approval numbers, the AKP retains some appeal among younger voters. Thousands stuck around for the entire November festival after Erdogan's inaugural address. Abdulsamet Semiz, an AKP youth branch chair for the northern Carsamba district, brushed aside suggestions that his party was losing touch with teens. "They're saying the youth are moving away from the AKP but there's no such thing. These are lies. The AKP cares for young people the most," said Semiz, 28.

Some of those attending the festival praised Erdogan for helping lower the age for becoming a member of parliament to 18 from 25, saying this showed his devotion to the young. "Some great work is being done," 19-year-old university student Emrullah Aydin said at the gathering, where the mood was buoyant. Yet gaining the trust of young voters has proved to be elusive - and not just for the AKP. In a survey of 3,000 young people across Turkey's 81 provinces, polling agency Turkiye Raporu found 58 percent would not join any political movement or party as a way of trying to build a better society to live in.

'Little trust'

"They don't believe that this current landscape can deliver for them," said Turkiye Raporu director Can Selcuki. "They have very little trust in political parties or in political establishments overall." Fellow pollster Murat Gezici said the generation born between 1980 and 1999 included many undecided voters - especially women - making them possibly more crucial in the next election than the youth demographic. "This group of 18.4 million makes up 32.6 percent of the electorate," Gezici told the Sozcu daily.

However, young voters could still settle a party's fortunes in a close election. And the AKP is faring worse than the national average with the young, said Selcuki, although "the difference (between the parties) is not game-changing" at this stage. Selcuki also warned against viewing young people as a monolithic voting bloc, stressing: "Young people are as diverse as the Turkish population as a whole." - AFP