Young Turks make their voices heard

Will Hodges explains why students are protesting in Turkey

What began in Istanbul on 28 May as a low-key demonstration against the construction of a shopping centre in a park has spiralled into a nationwide revolt against the government. By 11 June, riot police had moved into Taksim Square, Istanbul's central meeting place, breaking up groups of protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The protestors' main target, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has done little to calm the increasingly antagonistic relations between demonstrators and his government, asking recently "What did the protesters expect? That we would kneel down before them?"

Talking Turkey

Before the protests began, Turkey most often featured in the news as a darling of the investment world.

Turkey is one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, boasting a GDP increase of 9.2 per cent in 2010 and 8.5 per cent in 2011. Foreign investment has flooded in, fuelling a boom in manufacturing and construction.

Turkey's young people have been a key factor in the country's economic rise over the past decade. The average age of Turkey's population is 29 (the European Union average is 39), and more than half of Turkish people are under 25. This means that Turkey has one of the youngest, and therefore most economically valuable, workforces in Europe.

Classroom politics

However, Turkey's youth seems to have gone from being one of the nation's key assets to a thorn in its side. Dr Markus Ketola, fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) and an expert in Turkish politics and society, explains that a large number of the protestors involved in the recent demonstrations are students and other young people.

Many of these young protestors are middle-class and part of the more secular and Western-oriented sections of Turkish society that are unhappy with the government's attempts to impose conservative Islamic values on the country. These protestors, Markus says, are telling the government that "we don't want to be governed in this way - we want a more transparent and liberal mode of governance."

Young Turkish people have particular cause to dislike the current government's policies. The Turkish economy is growing, but it's arguable that young people are gaining little from the country's progress during the past few years.

Out of options

The creation of opportunities for young people has not kept pace with the country's recent economic development. The average graduate salary (£6 per hour) remains low by EU standards, and it's estimated that 22 per cent of Turkish young people are unemployed.

This paucity of options for young people, combined with a move towards a more intolerant brand of government, is likely to mean that greater numbers of young Turks will start looking abroad for work. It may be time for Erdogan to start kneeling.