Young Turks battle on Internet for votes

Turkey's ruling AK Party looks set to win Sunday's parliamentary elections, but the size of its majority could depend on millions of young voters who will cast their ballots for the first time this week.

Young Turks battle on Internet for votes
Opinion polls give the AK Party up to 40 percent of the vote -- far ahead of any of its rivals -- putting it on course to form the next government.

But if the Internet is anything to go by, young voters are reluctant to back the centre-right, pro-business party because they believe it is too close to the United States.

"When you search for Erdogan or AK Party, what you get will be mostly hostile clips, including lots of insults," said Ahmet Sariduman, a 23-year-old student who is trying to improve the AK Party's image.

Sariduman said the Internet video site YouTube, chat rooms and Web sites are awash with clips, messages and cartoons ridiculing Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his party.

One cartoon shows Erdogan's face on the Statue of Liberty, implying he is a puppet of the United States, which is deeply unpopular in Turkey because of the Iraq war.

Other clips and cartoons exploit Erdogan's gaffs.

In one clip he is shown using vulgar language to reprimand a poor farmer protesting at his party's policies. A cartoon shows Erdogan telling a dead Turkish soldier that the army is not a place to rest -- reference to comments he once made about conscription.

Sariduman remains undaunted. He posts clips of Erdogan's speeches on YouTube and sends messages to chat rooms urging people to vote for the party, which has presided over five years of strong economic growth and surging foreign investment
But he said his nationalist and secularist rivals are winning the image battle.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Erdogan's nationalist foes say he lacks patriotism and is soft on Kurdish separatists fighting the army in eastern Turkey.

"This is a prime minister who can't even say he is Turkish," said Mehmet Yurtseven, a 24-year old journalism student.

Chat rooms are rife with exchanges to AK Party leaders. Nationalist-minded youngsters claim Erdogan's grandparents are Greek and his top aide Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is Jewish -- both charges amount to an insult in Turkey.

Both Erdogan and Gul are pious Muslims.

Other videos evoke memories of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's fight to establish the modern secular republic after World War One on the ashes of the old religion-based Ottoman Empire and say Erdogan, an ex-Islamist, threatens that secular heritage.

But the AK Party has plenty of young supporters, and they do not necessarily conform to Turks' stereotypical image of the religiously devout and socially conservative.

Naziye Dirikgil, who does not wear the Islamic headscarf and describes herself as a liberal on social issues, is a staunch AK Party supporter. The 21-year-old student of international relations and aspiring diplomat dismisses claims that the AK has a hidden Islamist agenda and will turn Turkey into another Iran.

"Turkey is very different from Middle Eastern countries. It is much more modern and entrenched in the West," she said, pointing to reforms championed by Erdogan's government that aim to prepare Turkey for eventual European Union membership.
Sariduman said young Turkish voters often pick their allegiances without much thought.

"They say the (centre-left Republican People's Party) CHP is the party founded by Ataturk and they should vote for it, or they say they are nationalist and should vote for the (far-right Nationalist Movement Party) MHP," he said.

People should judge parties by their deeds, he added.

While sharing political ideas over the Internet is not unique to Turkish youth, many prefer the anonymity of cyberspace over direct face-to-face public meetings.

Speaking one's mind too freely can be risky, despite reforms since Turkey became a European Union candidate. Many writers, including Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted for dissenting from the official line on sensitive issues.

"I call this 'alias' politics. Families discourage their children from real politics so young people express themselves via the Internet using 'aliases', hiding their real identity," said Yurtseven.

YouTube politics is of course limited to a small section of the Turkish population, one third of which still lives in villages with limited or no access to the Internet.

"You live in (Ankara's upmarket district) Cankaya and don't know what happens downtown. Every morning thousands of men gather at bus stations to wait for employers to pick them up for a day's work," said Yilmaz Balamut, a construction worker.

Reuters

Güncelleme Tarihi: 18 Temmuz 2007, 14:49
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