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Erdogan poster and supporters
Image: Reuters/H. Aldemir

'Worse than the referendum itself': Turkey's polarization

Suzanne Cords kbm
April 19, 2017

Although the opposition fared well at the Turkish referendum, fear is growing in Turkey. Making art is extraordinarily difficult, says German author and playwright Moritz Rinke - but critical voices are needed there.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has claimed victory in a referendum, held Sunday, that will grant him broad new powers.

DW spoke with Berlin-based German playwright and author Moritz Rinke about the implications of the referendum on democracy and culture in Turkey. Rinke is married to Turkish artist Eylem Özdemir-Rinke. They were both in Antalya when a putsch was attempted in Turkey in 2016.

DW: Did you expect this referendum result in Turkey?

Moritz Rinke: Actually, I did. Of course, it's a referendum that was held during a state of emergency, which has been imposed since the coup attempt in July 2016 and which will probably be extended again now. The election conditions were relatively unfair and the opposition wasn't able to campaign like the governing party did.

Moritz Rinke
Playwright and author Moritz RinkeImage: Rowohlt Verlag

You could compare it to a soccer game in which the government's team is playing with 11 players and the opponents only have three. They're also not allowed to practice, and then they have to play barefoot and without a sponsor. Even so, this decimated team manages to achieve a tie, you could say, and that is almost a positive sign.

The result of the referendum is a protocolary victory, but as European observers have determined, it came about in a strange way. It was said that in some voting districts, observers weren't permitted and that unstamped ballots - amounting to around two million votes - suddenly found their way into the ballot boxes. Under these circumstances, the opposition fared well, and the AKP knows that, too.

Do you think that the opposition, which has said it wants to appeal to the European Court of Human rights, has a chance at hindering the government?

Turkey is in a state of emergency. What can a European court do? Erdogan exploits every criticism from the West. And what can a toothless opposition do? In the four years since the Gezi Park protests, they have had thousands of opportunities and haven't managed to change the government or campaign for a different Turkey.

This is also an expression of the dilemma in Turkey: There is no alternative to Erdogan; there isn't even really a democratic culture; there is no diversity and no powerful opposition to stand up to him.

Gezi Park protest
2013 was a time of uproar in TurkeyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One can only hope that an opposition will arise out of the AKP. That's why the outcome of the referendum is so tragic - because we hoped that the critical voices within the AKP would grow stronger if Erdogan had lost. Many AKP founders are no longer part of the party, and Erdogan's rise to power was not what the AKP wanted.

In the big cities, many people voted against the constitutional reform to extend Erdogan's powers.

Yes, in Istanbul, Erdogan's home turf, over 60 percent voted no. He lost in Izmir, Antalya and even in Ankara, the capital city. Even amidst the big announcements of victory, this cannot leave Erdogan's government unscathed. The constitution may be changed, but this country still has democratically minded people that have to live with the division and that need our support from the West so they don't give up entirely. The polarization of Turkey's population is actually worse than the putsch or the referendum. 

I know Turkish families that have been tragically divided during the referendum campaign. I know of daughters who have disowned their fathers. The referendum became an election for or against Erdogan - and that is wrong. It shows how the government manipulated the campaign. Really, it was about deciding whether Turkey wanted a new constitution that would do away with democracy and abolish the division of power.

Instead of yes or no, it turned into a socio-cultural problem. Those who opposed it became the enemy. That is the product of the last four years and a division that is very tragic for Turkey. I don't know whether the situation can be mitigated. People now need a great deal of patience to try stretch their arms over the divide.

Sixty-three percent of Turks living in Germany voted yes in the referendum. There have been many attempts to explain this, from approval for Erdogan's achievements to failed integration in Germany. There has been a great deal of conflict over the issue. Do you think things will simmer down?

It's hard to understand why over 60 percent of Turks living here in freedom - more than in Turkey - votes for an autocratic system in their home country. We have to wonder what we've done wrong. Perhaps it's just a psychological explanation to say that decades of oppression here has led to a kind of revenge against the Germans. Erdogan is very clever and smart enough to instrumentalize people. But can one really claim that the 400,000 Turks in Germany who voted "yes" are not well integrated into German society? I'd wouldn't say so, as that would only add to the already existing divisions. To the contrary, we have to seek reconciliation. Especially as artists, we have to remember what binds us together.  

Your wife is Turkish and, as a dancer, has close ties to the cultural scene in Turkey. After the coup attempt in 2016, many writers and people associated with the theater were imprisoned or suspended from their jobs. What does the situation look like now?

Protests after Turkish referendum on April 16
Protests followed the referendum result - but will they continue?Image: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgul

A good friend of ours, Meltem Cumbul, is a very well known actress and president of the actors' trade union. They have a lot to do with the imprisoned artists and writers. She told me recently about two Kurdish actors in the south of Turkey who were dismissed from their theater and offered work with the police instead. That's even more absurd than absurd theater!

On top of that, critical journalism was, as we know, torn apart and individual journalists are now in jail. Universities were also severely affected. It has become very, very difficult to think freely in Turkey and for artists and authors to work there.

Many journalists and artists have sought asylum in Germany. How can they be helped?

Here in Berlin, we are working with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, the Maxim Gorki Theater, the Deutsches Theater, the Berliner Ensemble and many other cultural institutions to see how we can help Turks that are coming to Germany.

Petitions and appeals to the chancellor or the Turkish government are useless. We have to try to help in individual cases and see how Turkish artists integrate here - and also how we can organize their emigration. I can't say how many people that will entail, but I'm concerned that even more will come now. Of course they are very welcome here, but it would be good if critical voices, those that want an open Turkey, remain there.

Moritz Rinke, born in 1967, is an author and playwright and lives in Berlin. His plays have been performed worldwide. Most recently, "We Love and Know Nothing" was performed in over 50 countries. His first novel, "Der Mann, der durch das Jahrhundert fiel" came out in 2010 and stayed at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks. Rinke has been married to the Turkish artist Eylem Özdemir-Rinke since 2013. The couple was in Antalya in 2016 when the coup attempt took place.


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