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Where Erdogan's Victory In Turkey Referendum Vote Leaves The Opposition


For Turks whose outlook is secular, liberal and pro-Western, last Sunday's referendum was a devastating blow. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose outlook is religious, authoritarian and insular, greatly strengthened the powers of his office. And under the terms of the referendum, Erdogan could conceivably remain in power until 2029. Well, where does that leave Turks who aspire to a more democratic, Western, open society? Well, we're going to ask novelist, essayist and activist Elif Safak, who is in London and joins us via Skype. Welcome to the program.

ELIF SAFAK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Whether President Erdogan actually won a legitimate majority or not may be in dispute, but millions and millions and millions of Turkish voters voted to make him a strong man and to dispense with the powers of Parliament. How do you understand that? How do you explain his popularity?

SAFAK: Well, there is no doubt he is quite popular with many segments of the Turkish society but not with the entire society. And that is the thing. You will come across people who adore Erdogan, but you will also come across people who dislike him very intensely. And there's almost no middle ground left anymore. There are no nuances left in Turkey. We have been badly divided. And if anything, this referendum has highlighted that there is no one single Turkey. There are, in fact, two Turkeys, and the gap between them is growing.

SIEGEL: And you would say that the way the media covered the campaign leading up to the referendum was very much a vote in favor of the referendum.

SAFAK: This referendum, especially the leading months to the referendum, the run-up campaign was neither fair nor free nor balanced. We have to understand that most of the state's resources and the news outlets were devoted to only one side of the campaign. The yes campaign was voiced everywhere all the time whereas the no campaign was not given a free platform at all. People who dared to say they were going to vote no have been intimidated, targeted. Some of them have even lost their jobs. Some of them have been physically or verbally attacked on the streets or on social media. And I think it is quite remarkable that despite this unfairness half of the society still said no.

SIEGEL: You've spoken of an existential crisis in Turkey. What do you mean by that?

SAFAK: Lots of questions with regards to who we are have been raised in this moment in history. Where do we belong? For my generation and for generations of people growing up in Turkey, it was very clear that we saw ourselves as part of Europe or as a country that was constantly in a dialogue with Europe. But now, the rhetoric has changed so much. There's too much Euroscepticism, ultranationalism. I think all of these ideologies go hand-in-hand with an increase in authoritarianism.

SIEGEL: It was reported today that Turkish President Erdogan will come to Washington next month and meet with President Trump, who, as we know, placed a congratulatory phone call to Erdogan after the referendum. If there is a summit meeting in Washington and there's no hint of concern expressed by American leaders about the state of Turkey post-referendum, would that have any repercussions in Turkey, do you think?

SAFAK: I think it is very important to understand that democracy is not something that can be postponed, especially with the populist movements on the rise. More and more people are saying, well, maybe we have to make a choice between stability and democracy. And maybe in the Middle East, we have to prioritize stability at the expense of democracy. I'm saying those who say this have learned nothing from history because this is a false dichotomy. We have seen - history has shown us time and again that undemocratic nations are unhappy nations, and unhappy nations cannot be stable.

SIEGEL: Turkish writer Elif Safak, thank you for speaking with us today from London.

SAFAK: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAYBESHEWILL'S "FAIR YOUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.