Erdogan victory set to trigger a new Turkish brain drain

Erdogan victory set to trigger a new Turkish brain drain
Young Turks at a rally in support of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose prospects of claiming the presidency took a grievous blow in the first-round vote. / BOL News, screengrab
By Jason Corcoran in Izmir May 24, 2023

A new wave of disillusioned young Turks are preparing to abandon their country if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is re-elected in the presidential run-off on May 28.

A dozen educated twentysomethings interviewed by bne IntelliNews in the Aegean coastal cities Izmir and Bodrum expressed dismay and despair over how the opposition bloc led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu appears unable to end Erdogan’s 20-year reign. Erdogan, against many expectations, triumphed in May 14’s first round vote.

Ensar, a 25-year-old engineering graduate, is so pessimistic about Kilicdaroglu’s chances in the second round that he is seriously entertaining leaving his job and trying to emigrate to Western Europe.

“My friends and I hoped for the best, but it looks like it will turn out like it always does with Erdogan clinging to power,” said Ensar, who works as head of guest relations at a top 5-star hotel in Bodrum. “It’s the last straw for many of us, who don’t see a real future any more here with the economy getting worse.”

Hotels along Turkey’s famed Aegean coast are hoping for a bumper summer season after months of hosting displaced survivors from the horrific double-earthquake disaster on February 6, which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, levelled towns and cities and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

While the Aegean region may be on an earthquake fault line, its main cities were unaffected by February’s horrific quake catastrophe. However, many of the towns along the coast, particularly Kusadasi and Didim, are so blighted by poor and unfinished construction that they appear as if they have in fact been hit by recent powerful seismic activity.   

Tourism revenue is vital to Turkey as President Erdogan tries to focus on the gaping current account deficit – $48.8bn last year – in tackling spiralling inflation and high interest rates.

For IT developer Kaan Yildrim, the final nail in the coffin for Kilicdaroglu’s prospects of beating Erdogan came after Sinan Ogan, who placed third in the presidential first-round contest, said he would endorse the incumbent during a press conference in Ankara on May 22.

Erdogan officially received 49.52% of the vote in the first round, giving him a five-point margin over Kilicdaroglu. The support for Erdogan from Ogan, who received 5.17% of votes cast, makes it impossible for the president to be beaten, according to Kaan, 28.

“We all got caught up in some kind of deluded delirium and optimism that Erdogan could be defeated by the Turkish Gandhi [Kilicdaroglu],” said Kaan, who was sipping tea with his girlfriend in the beachside café Gaaveci in Bodrum. “Now reality has kicked in. Nothing is changing and, in fact, things will get worse for those of us who want to be European and remain secular."

His girlfriend Dilara Altinok, 23, was persuaded to vote for Kilicdaroglu after Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), vowed to defend women’s rights and return Turkey to the Istanbul Convention if he is elected. Erdogan’s coalition have agreed to withdraw the country from the convention on preventing violence against women, arguing that it threatens “family values.”

“Women’s rights are being trampled on and used as a political football during this campaign by all the sides,” said Dilara, who is studying law and hopes to one day emigrate to the UK. “I fear that Erdogan will now use his new mandate to gradually destroy our founding father’s secular legacy.”  

Dilara’s anxiety that the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the statesman who a century ago transformed Turkey from a mainly Islamic country into a modern secular one, will be further eroded by an emboldened Erdogan is one shared by many.

Nonetheless, the achievements of the founder of the Turkish Republic are still celebrated across the country to this day with his portrait dominating the skylines and many schools, hospitals and hotel foyers.

On May 19, most of the country seemed to mark the Commemoration of Ataturk, Youth and Sports day with musical and sporting events that paid tribute to Ataturk and showcased the youth, the hope of the country. Ataturk arrived in the Black Sea province of Samsun from Istanbul on May 19, 1919, to launch the war that resulted in the establishment of a new republic four years later.

In Izmir, about a three-hour drive up the coast from Bodrum, there were musical concerts with everyone dressed in red t-shirts and brandishing Turkish flags. Whirling dervishes spun to driving dance music without anyone close to reaching a state of nirvana.

As Turkey’s third-largest city with a population of 4.5mn, Izmir is regarded as the country’s most liberal and cosmopolitan metropolis, with a bustling commercial centre and a hedonistic beach club scene.  Izmir is also a stronghold of the CHP and typically registers a significant anti-Erdogan vote.

Watching the concert with his friends was Mehmet, a third-year physiotherapy student home for the summer from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Like many other Turks, Mehmet feels the government should start taking better care of its citizens before catering for the officially estimated 3.6mn Syrian refugees who have arrived since 2011.

“I didn’t vote in the first round, and I won’t vote in the second one,” said Mehmet, 23, who is helping out in the family's grocery business “Some of my people’s family in Gaziantep [a city in south-central Turkey] lost everything after the earthquake and have more of a refugee status than the Syrians.”

Kilicdaroglu is now belatedly trying to tap into that anti-refugee sentiment ahead of the run-off, by accusing the government of allowing 10mn “irregular” migrants to enter the country.

“We will not abandon our homeland to this mentality that allowed 10 million irregular migrants to come among us,” Kilicdaroglu said in a video posted on Twitter on May 17, warning that the number of migrants could grow to 30mn.

“Those who love their homeland, come to the ballot box,” Kilicdaroglu urged voters without providing any evidence to back his claims about the number of migrants.

Back in Bodrum, Ensar has been messaging with friends and former colleagues who have left in recent years to work and study in the US, Germany and the UK.

“For us Turks, it’s not easy to leave even if we want to,” said a downcast Ensar. “First of all, it’s difficult for us to get visas and some countries are not very welcoming because they think we are neanderthals or Islamic radicals.”

The Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK, or TurkStat) has not released international migration statistics for two years. According to the last annual report in 2019, 84,900 Turkish citizens moved abroad with the largest group being young people between 25 and 29 years of age.

Anecdotally, the emigrants are mostly people employed in IT, technology, engineering, finance and academia.

A brain drain from Turkey to Western developed countries is nothing new, but the reasons now are more politically motivated, according to Bekir Agirdir, a director of the Konda research consultancy.

“The brain drain [from Turkey] has happened throughout history,” said Agirdir in a recent column. “However, this time the reasons are political. They are about losing faith in the future of the country and [young people] not being able to see a place for themselves in that future.

“Turkey badly needs to hear a different vision for the future of the country. This is needed not just by the youth or migrants but everyone — conservative or secular; Turk or Kurd; left or right.”