Turkey’s Undemocratic Elections

Turkey’s heading for another election, arguably one of its most important so far, as made clear by the unusually vitriolic statements by leading government members (and opposition candidates too, I gather, if the Turkish media reported on them to the same extent), seemingly stumbling over each other to say anything that would make them noticed.

Much ink gets spilled over the main issue at hand this time around: whether the AKP will get the super-majorities required to either unilaterally write a new constitution, or to push one through a referendum. A particular trait of the current constitutional debate is President Erdoğan’s desire for a stronger presidency in Turkey (and one specifically without the checks and balances of, for example, the US). The focus on this issue is quite understandable, as it could change the formal rules of government in the country quite substantially.

A concern, however, is that a too singular focus on Erdoğan and his desire for a presidency draws attention away from what the problem of the current institutional setting really is. And that isn’t parliamentarism as a system of government, as Erdoğan would like his constituency to believe, but the poverty of Turkey’s democracy overall. And while Erdoğan and his AKP government may very well have improved the living standards of its constituency, they have so far failed abysmally in extending the same courtesy to the country’s democratic system.

This post is about one particular segment of Turkey’s institutions: its elections.

Last year, just after the local elections, I wrote a series of blog posts (1, 2, 3) suggesting all was not well with how votes were counted. At that time, although members of the opposition had been complaining about this for a while, this appeared to hit a raw nerve. Within a week of my initial post, my blog had been visiting more than 70,000 times, and the various posts had been cited or linked to in FT, Washington Post, The National Interest, Jadaliyya, Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg View, Dagens Nyheter, Cumhuriyet (1 2, 3), and Radikal. In the comments section of my blog, pro-government trolls were threatening the election NGO that had shared their data with me, and the “newspaper” Takvim generously nominated me a member of the “banker lobby” together what they perceived to be my main co-belligerents: an Australian media mogule, referred to as “the Jewish Baron”, and a Swedish tycoon, dead since 1938. An unusual week, to say the least.

At the time, I hoped my blog posts (the above ones as well as others) would trigger a broader discussion in Turkey on its democratic fundamentals, not just as a critique against the AKP, but as part of a broader institutional – for lack of a better word – soul-searching.

As far as the media goes, I have yet to see a series of articles outright discussing what Turkey’s democracy should look like, beyond the lamentation of its current decline under Erdoğan. What is even more worrying is that the AKP government appears to deliberately withhold information about its draft constitution “to keep it from becoming a campaign target”. The idea that constitutions to promote democracy should not be part of a supposedly democratic election campaign is perhaps the strongest signal of the democratic distress Turkey is in I have seen so far – especially so, since a higher-than-expected election result for the AKP could effectively allow them to unilaterally push through parliament a new constitution with next to no participation from voters.

And as for concerns over election irregularities in Turkey, these have now gotten so severe that, according to one survey, nearly 50% believe elections will not be fair (up from 28% in 2007). Amongst others, this change could have several reasons; it could reflect concerns over election fraud, but it could also political polarization among voters, with opposition voters linking decreasing trust in elections with decreasing trust in the AKP government.

Interestingly, given the amount of legislation AKP has pushed through its majority-controlled parliament, little of the actual election system has changed under the AKP’s rule. This is rather unsurprising as it is this very election system that is at the root of the AKP’s political advantage; an authoritarian majoritarian system masking as a democratic proportional one. The AKP didn’t invent it, instead it is an institutional relic from the military’s rewriting of Turkey’s institutions after the 1980 coup when the secular elite sought reduce the probability of having recurring weak coalition governments while keep undesired political parties (read: Communists, Kurds, and Islamists) out. It was badly conceived then, and it continues to distort Turkey’s democracy decades later.

The poverty of Turkey’s election system is manifested by several components, all in need of reform.

The mother of all election thresholds

The 10% threshold, requiring any party to receive more than ten percent of the national vote to qualify for any mandate in parliament, is unusually high by international standards, and arguably among the most distorting aspects of Turkey’s election system. While the ECHR in 2008 did not rule the threshold as a violation of human rights, it did call it “excessive”. Perhaps the threshold’s most notable political consequence was the proportionality disaster that occurred in the 2002 elections, where roughly 45% of voters did not receive representation in parliament, and only two parties as well as a handful of independent candidates received mandates (See jamesinturkey.com’s post for a graphical illustration of this). The AKP, winning merely a third of the votes, received two thirds of the parliamentary seats.

Curiously, at the time a The New York Times editorial from November 5th (“Turkey Votes For Change”) described the election as “the kind of opportunity people elsewhere in the Islamic world want and deserve”, without acknowledging that as a measure of success in aggregating voter preferences, this was likely Turkey’s largest electoral disaster in post-war history. Fortunately, the notoriety of this threshold has resulted in several parties making explicit campaign promises to lower the threshold (see here). The AKP, however, has repeatedly made clear they have little interest in lowering the threshold, and before its split with Erdoğan, neither did the Gülen movement.

Closed Democracy

In addition to voters’ limited choice across parties, another problematic deficiency is the lack of intra-party democracy. Power within Turkish political parties tend to be heavily concentrated in their leaders, aided by the closed list system, which prevents voters from having a say on the order in which candidates appear and get elected on the party lists. Instead, voters on election day are fed lists prepared by party elites, and are thus unable to affect the relative election probabilities of candidates within parties. For party members, this creates incentives to cater to party leaders rather than voters themselves, centralizing power within the partly leadership and weakening the link between voters and politicians.

An increasing number of European countries with proportional election systems today have open lists, where voters not only choose parties but also have a chance in affecting the relative election probabilities of candidates within parties. In Sweden, you can also vote for an individual candidate that isn’t even mentioned on the list (from The Local SE):

“If you are keen on a specific candidate, put a cross by his or her name on one of the Name Ballots. That will ensure your support goes to your favorite candidate when it comes time to assign seats won by their party. Such a vote is also, in effect, a vote for the party to which the candidate of your choice represents. If you don’t really care about a specific candidate, but have a particular party you want to vote for, then choose one of the Party Ballots. And you can also write in a party name on a blank ballot if there no ballot papers present for the party of your choice.”

Interestingly, recent research, also in Sweden, on the implementation of the open list system shows introducing more flexible list systems can have real effects on the selection of leaders.

A number of other factors of Turkey’s election system serve to strengthen the undemocratic nature of its election system. As political scientist Erik Tillman recently pointed out on his blog the “prevalence of many small electoral districts (with district magnitudes of 5 or less)”… “tend to produce disproportional results. AKP tend to be strongest in these smaller districts, allowing it to win a higher proportion of the seats than its vote share would normally allow.” Also, the d’Hondt method used for allocating votes to seats in Turkey, is according to Arend Lijphart the “least proportional of all PR methods”. Coupled with this is the serial banning of political parties and candidates that have affected everyone from Kurdish parties and candidates to Erdoğan himself.

Altogether this creates a system that is competitive and proportional in name but majoritarian and oligopolistic in reality.

The Devil is in the Ballot Box

A much less discussed aspect of Turkey’s election system is the ballot box, which is unusually small at around 300 registered voters per ballot box (sometimes even lower). As ballot boxes are geographically concentrated and parties can relatively easily match the ballot box results with the accompanying lists of registered voters, this generates strong incentives for voter coercion even before the election. 300 may seem like a large number, but in Sweden for example, that number is often 1,500 or more (in my constituency in Stockholm that number is 1,300). In the latter it would be extremely costly, near impossible, to link voting outcomes to smaller groups of voters, but if the number is as small as 300, this becomes a lot easier, especially in poorer and more rural areas, where voting tends to be highly correlated within communities and families, and this opens up opportunities for meddling with votes. The small number of voters in a ballot box further makes it easier to punish voters, e.g. by withholding public services, as the ballot box constituency itself can often be precisely geolocated.

The small number of voters within a ballot box results in a large counting units, possibly hampering monitoring efforts. Interestingly, the election irregularities I wrote about last year were all about variation across ballot boxes within voting stations. This doesn’t mean Turkey would necessarily experience less irregularities with larger box sizes, but it points to the issue of why they have to be so small.

Never mind a presidential system, how about a democratic system?

To be be frank, whatever ill the AKP may or may not have caused Turkey, it has only been able to do so by taking advantage of an inherited election system that is wholly unable to adequately aggregate voter preferences, offering little but a cheap veneer of democracy.

Whatever the election outcome is on June 7th, the post-election period requires a deeper debate on how to strengthen the link between voters and politicians while protecting voter preferences from state repression. This is inherently linked to – and often a neglected component of – increasing checks and balances. It’s about facilitating democratic freedoms not just across parties, but also within them, something Turkey’s voters have never really experienced.

Without reforming the current election system, Turkey is unlikely to see an real democratic progress in the foreseeable future, with or without Erdoğan.

(Note: Interested parties are strongly advised to read Aengus Collins very insightful blog posts on Turkey’s election system, available here. Especially recommended are two the posts about opaque campaign financing and state funding for political parties)


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