Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and essayist whose works include The Bastard of Istanbul, The Architect’s Apprentice and Three Daughters of Eve. The WorldPost interviewed her about the results of Turkey’s historic referendum granting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers.
What does it mean for Turkey’s long experiment with democracy now that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gained more autocratic power through this referendum?
First of all, it needs to be acknowledged that the months of campaigning prior to the referendum were neither balanced nor fair nor free. Every day and night the “yes” vote was propagated all over Turkish media, both print and TV, most of which are blatantly pro-government. The “no” vote was not given an equal voice or a free platform to express its concerns. Most of the state’s resources and news outlets were unilaterally used by and for the “yes” campaign. People who publicly dared to say that they were going to vote “no” were intimidated, bullied and attacked by trolls on social media ― and some of them even lost their jobs. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan included, the AKP [or ruling Justice and Development Party] elite repeatedly accused supporters of the “no” vote of siding with “terrorists.” We therefore need to understand the turbulent background to this referendum. Turkey has become the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Academics have been sacked for signing a peace petition. The co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish HDP, [or Peoples’ Democratic Party], alongside the local mayors, have been detained and imprisoned. In such a climate of fear and intimidation, how can there be a free, fair and balanced referendum ― and especially on such an important issue that will alter the country’s entire political system?
'The referendum has not solved anything. If anything, it deepened the existing cultural and ideological divisions.'
This referendum is going to have a massive impact on Turkey’s destiny for generations to come. And Turkey’s journey will have an impact on an entire region. A decision of such magnitude has been taken through an unfair, one-sided campaign with a slight margin of electoral victory in the end. Given the fact that the government’s propaganda has been so widespread and systematic, it is remarkable that only 51 percent have voted “yes” eventually ― and that with some serious questions as to the validity of the total number of votes. What the electoral board did at the last minute ― changing the rules and deciding to count the votes without unofficial stamps ― was totally unexpected, scandalous. So I am sad about the outcome and worried about my motherland. The referendum has not solved anything. If anything, it deepened the existing cultural and ideological divisions. There is no national consensus, there is no culture of coexistence. Sadly, there is no unity among the opposition either. Turkey is going through not only a political crisis, but also an existential one. Ours is a nation in a deep identity crisis.
What do the referendum results mean for Turkey’s relationship with Europe?
Turkey’s relationship with Europe has already hit a rock bottom. The government’s rhetoric is jingoistic nationalist and anti-Western, especially with Europe. So we can expect an escalation in that kind of language now. But these things can change and fluctuate, depending on the politics and the interests of the day, for both sides. We should also bear in mind that Turkey is a society of collective amnesia. Last year, Russia was “the enemy.” This year, it was “our friend.” It is amazing how fast feelings ― and foreign policies ― change when societies are unstable. In fact, one of the first things Erdoğan mentioned in his victory speech was reinstating the death penalty. This means severing ties with the European Union. The hegemonic discourse in Turkey today is shaped by Islamism, Turkish nationalism and Euroskepticism.
'This is the most significant turning point in Turkey’s modern political history.'
Does this mark the most significant turning point for the Turkish republic since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk? In a way, is it the final repeal of Kemalism?
This is the most significant turning point in Turkey’s modern political history. It is a shift backwards; the end of parliamentary democracy. It is also a dangerous discontinuation of decades of Westernization, secularism and modernization; the discontinuation of Atatürk’s modern Turkey. Those who defend the presidential system are trying to play it down by arguing that it will be just like France or America. But it won’t. It won’t because we do not have the culture of democracy, we only have the shape of democracy. In Turkey, the ruling elite do not understand that you need more than the ballot box for a proper, functioning, pluralistic democracy. Turkey does not have the same checks and balances, rule of law, separation of powers and free/diverse media that the U.S. and France relatively enjoy under their presidential systems.
A little over a year ago you said the crackdown on media in the country and the refugee crisis were causing Turkey to “slide backwards” and become increasingly polarized. You say the referendum is also a “shift backward.” The narrowness of the victory, the critique by monitors and Erdoğan’s loss of Istanbul also highlight these divisions. What does this identity crisis mean for the future of Turkey?
Turkey has been sliding backwards for many years now. It is not new. But there have been accelerating factors and moments when the decline in our democracy became faster, sharper. The collapse of relations with the EU was one watershed moment. The abandonment of the peace/reconciliation process with the Kurdish PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] was so sad, if not dangerous. Another horrible moment was the bloody coup attempt in July. Then came the purge. Today, politicians and pro-government newspapers tell young people that it is better to abandon any prospect of joining the EU and walk in the other direction and enter the Shanghai Pact [also known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization] with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China. It’s true that this would be the right place for any country with a depressing freedom of speech violations record.
'Those who defend the presidential system are trying to play it down by arguing that it will be just like France or America. But it won’t.'
Last summer you described the coup attempt in Turkey as “a nail in the coffin of democracy” and said “we are heading into a Kafkaesque world.” Where does Turkey go from here? What are you most concerned about?
The coup attempt was wrong, shocking, sinister ― and it made everything worse. Turkey’s liberals and democrats do not want another military takeover. They don’t want a military or a civilian dictatorship. What we need is a proper, functioning, pluralistic democracy. I do not wish anyone in Turkey to have extraordinary powers, to tell you the truth. Whoever has power, demands more and then more. It is never enough. So, primarily, I am concerned about the monopolization of power, the crackdown on diversity and dissent. Turkey is fast becoming yet another Middle Eastern country. Once we used to think this country was a successful and sui generis synthesis, blending a majority-Muslim culture with secularism and Western democracy. No longer.
U.S. President Donald Trump recently congratulated Erdoğan on his win. How might his victory impact U.S.-Turkey relations? Do you think Erdoğan’s newly won power will give hope or momentum to other populist leaders worldwide, specifically Marine Le Pen ahead of the French election? If so, how so?
What is very worrisome is how democracy stopped being a priority, both in the East and in the West. This is the trend we need to reverse across the globe. How can we make democracy a priority again? After decades of globalization, whether we like it or not, we are all interconnected. That is why the kind of “isolationism” that populist movements champion is neither feasible nor realistic. Populists are encouraged by each other, for sure. The erosion of democracy in one country gives pretext for the erosion of democracy in another country. Extremism in one country breeds extremism elsewhere. Turkey holds important lessons for the world. Turkey’s story is a lesson in the fragility of democracy vis-à-vis populist demagoguery.
'Turkey’s story is a lesson in the fragility of democracy vis-à-vis populist demagoguery.'
Are there any benefits to this result? Stronger defenses against terrorism or a reunified Cyprus, for instance?
That is what the proponents of the presidential system claim ― they say Turkey will be stronger and decisions can be made speedily. They also say that in the Middle East, we need to choose between “stability” and “democracy.” But this is a false dichotomy. Those who believe in this have learned nothing from history. History has shown us time and again that top-down monopolization of power, no matter by which individual, group or party, will bring only unhappiness, and unhappy nations cannot possibly be stable.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.