Elif Shafak: Polarization Plays Into the Hands of Populist Demagogues

The results of the European Union elections are not surprising, says novelist Elif Shafak.

People walk across carpeting with the flag of the European Union at the headquarters of the German Christian Democrats (CDU) during European parliamentary elections on May 26 in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty)

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and essayist whose celebrated works include “The Bastard of Istanbul” and “The Architect’s Apprentice.” WorldPost Editor-in-Chief Nathan Gardels interviewed her shortly after last week’s European Parliament elections.

WorldPost: All the centrist parties of Europe have lost significant ground in the E.U. elections, with a continuing rise of populists, notably in France, Italy and Great Britain. What are the implications?

Elif Shafak: The outcome of the elections is disappointing in several ways but not surprising. For quite some time now, there had been an increasing frustration with the centrist parties. Study after study shows that the number of people moving toward the edges of the political spectrum, looking for alternatives outside the two mainstream parties, has been on the rise.

This frustration is all the more visible here in the United Kingdom due to the endless Brexit saga and fatigue that, after years of impasse, triggered two basic responses: apathy or anger. None of that helps.

This kind of environment plays directly into the hands of populist demagogues. They benefit from apathy, and they thrive upon anger. Between them, across Europe, populists and euroskeptics are expected to get one-quarter of the E.U. Parliament. This will no doubt give them a new energy and boost their confidence.

Today’s populist-nationalist movements are also keen to build international alliances. Italy, France, Hungary … populists are emboldened by each other’s presence.

Nonetheless, I am amazed that once the E.U. election results started coming in, several experts and politicians claimed that the populist surge had been contained. I disagree. Nothing has been contained. We cannot be complacent. We should be concerned.

WorldPost: Why has the pro-European narrative of Emmanuel Macron lost out to Marine Le Pen’s voters, even though he was just elected in a contest with her two years ago?

Shafak: Macron is an important politician for the liberal world, and I want him to succeed. But we also need to understand that his popularity was not very high to begin with.

The anti-government mood has seriously weakened him after months of protests. Interestingly, throughout this campaign, we have seen a shift in Le Pen’s rhetoric. Rather than talking about France leaving the E.U. (Frexit), she has been talking about building a new union inside Europe.

What she means, in fact, is a coalition of European nation-states governed by populist parties in each. This is also in line with Steve Bannon’s aims. Marine Le Pen built her entire campaign on stopping Macron. Meanwhile, Macron himself built his entire campaign on being the defender of liberal values and the architect of a European renaissance, with him being the good one against all the bad ones.

I don’t think it was the right thing to put himself so much at the heart of the campaign in this way. It reiterated exactly what the populists were saying, that this is all about Macron. So things will be even harder from now on for the liberal left in France.

Even when the economy does well, the culture and society will be at the forefront of the divisions. This doesn’t mean that Le Pen can easily be the president in the future. But one thing is clear: in France, the political stakes are high, and the cultural clashes are among the sharpest in Europe.

WorldPost: The Greens also gained at the margins. Doesn’t this present some hope that progressives have a future?

Shafak: I think it’s wonderful that the left is becoming greener. The Greens came second in Germany and third in France. They’ve done remarkably well across Europe. Both the Greens and the liberals were winners in the U.K.

With this new leverage, the Greens can push for progressive steps to be taken to deal with climate change. An increasing number of European citizens see climate change among the top three major problems in today’s world. As climate awareness increases, so does the need for a green movement. This gives us fresh hope and a new direction.

And there is one important distinction that people outside Europe tend to miss. The triumph of Greens in Europe was not solely due to increasing environmental awareness and activism. The Greens were also able to come up with a clear social, cultural and economic program and offer a way forward to break the political deadlock.

This is critical because the “new left” cannot be a single-issue movement. There is a range of problems that need to be dealt with, from climate change to inequality and beyond, and a new progressive movement must be able to embrace people from dissimilar backgrounds and tackle multiple issues simultaneously.

WorldPost: How can the political forces of progressive humanism gain back momentum in Europe?

Shafak: One good thing about the E.U. elections is that it attracted the highest voter turnout in two decades, at roughly 50 percent. It is clear that more and more citizens are becoming passionate about politics: more engaged, more committed. We have to channel this passion into a new narrative that celebrates equality and connectivity — a narrative that appreciates pluralism and liberal democracy.

The challenge is to do this without being perceived as the status quo — to be the vehicle and voice of change for the better, for a true and inclusive democracy. It makes me sad that often populist demagogues are more competent than their liberal counterparts when it comes to addressing people’s emotions. Politicians who suppress their emotions don’t have a chance in this climate. This is the moment to unite hearts and minds and bring out emotional intelligence.

I also find it very dangerous when mainstream politicians start to behave just like populists, trying to be even more nationalist than the nationalists, more xenophobic than the xenophobes. The way forward is to be openly and courageously critical of the populist elite but at the same time connect with the people who might have voted for them for different reasons.

Populism is the fake answer to some real problems. The problems are real. The populist elite are anything but.