The winding streets and alleys that surround Istanbul’s Taksim Square are lined with designer-clothing stores and fashionable nightclubs and bars. The area is popular with the city’s college students and young professionals, and although a high-stakes municipal vote loomed the next day, on Saturday night it was still teeming with Turkish men in tight jeans and young women in dangerously high heels. My guide to this scene was Onur Dedeoglu, a 27-year-old information-systems manager and Istanbul native whom I’d met earlier that day at an election rally for the Republican People’s Party. Known as CHP, it is the main group opposed to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist and increasingly authoritarian government. You could call them the Gezi generation: It was these young people who last summer took to the streets to protest the government’s plan to raze Gezi, a park near Taksim Square, to make way for a commercial development. The protest movement politically awakened the Gezi generation, and on Sunday they would be joining the estimated 2.5 million young Turks voting for the first time—in local elections across the country that were widely considered a test of strength for the movement and for Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
An anti-govement protestor stands on the barricade at Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul in June. AFP/Getty Images
In the bars on the square and spilling out of them, revelers danced and drank beer and raki, the anise-flavored Turkish national liquor; couples kissed or bickered drunkenly; young men stood in groups, smoking cigarettes. Yet the mood was political. In between American hip-hop and European techno music, the DJ at one bar would slip in old, upbeat anthems associated with Turkey’s secular-nationalist past.
The young people sang along, or chanted angrily: “Recep Tayyip, bye-bye!” and “Recep Tayyip the thief!” referring to recent corruption allegations against Mr. Erdogan and his allies, which the prime minister denies. The revelers vowed to make it to the polls the next day, hangovers be damned, to show their support for the secular republic that Atatürk established nearly a century ago.
But on Sunday night, as polls closed and ballots were counted, it became clear that the opposition had failed to overcome Mr. Erdogan’s electoral machine. AKP local candidates won half of the national vote and retained the crucial mayoralties of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.