The Dangers of Setting the Bar Too High

Turkey won't be able to achieve a healthy democracy unless it allows for a greater diversity of political representation.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

As Turkey prepares for three sets of elections over the next two years, democracy in the country is in a fragile state. The Gezi Park protests that erupted earlier in the summer inadvertently exposed to the world the authoritarian vein running through the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once presided over a necessary reining in of military power and handing of additional social rights to the country’s Kurdish population, turned with angry rhetoric on the young and peaceful demonstrators who gathered in Istanbul to oppose unilateral plans to redevelop one of the city’s last green spaces. He tacitly endorsed the violence used by security forces to rein in the protests, accused a foreign conspiracy of instigating the movement, and even threatened to rally his own AKP party base into the streets to face off against the denizens of Gezi Park.

Despite that, Gezi Park was a hopeful moment for proponents of grassroots democracy activism in Istanbul and beyond. But the immediate outcome also underlined some disturbing wider realities. Even before the Gezi Park movement erupted, opponents of the government had been the targets of politically motivated prosecutions such as the Ergenekon case. The government’s response to the "Kurdish question" has become incoherent. An unsustainable and non-transparent peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a policy of urging militants to leave the country (running the risk that they will become involved in conflicts in neighboring Iraq and Syria), and flagging concern for the rights of everyday Kurds are all causing considerable tensions. The country now has one of the highest numbers of imprisoned journalists in the world; in the 2013 Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, it ranked 154th out of 179 countries. Freedom House, a pro-democracy organization, now classifies Turkey as only "partly free."

Against this discouraging backdrop, Turks will head to the polls starting next spring. Local elections are scheduled for March 2014, presidential elections for June 2014, and parliamentary elections around May 2015. Erdogan has long hoped that the elections will end with another mandate for the AKP on all levels, which would then allow him to move forward with changes to the constitution that will strengthen the office of the Turkish president — an office he would eventually like to hold. It appears that he has failed to accomplish this mission in the current parliament.

Regardless of what Erdogan thinks, however, the deepest structural problem with Turkey’s political system is not the lack of a strong president. Rather, it is the lack of democracy in general and disenfranchisement caused by the high bar Turkish political parties must clear to be included in parliament. To be given seats, a party must win at least 10 percent of the vote. In neighboring Greece, the threshold is just 3 percent; in Germany and Poland, among many other European countries, it is 5 percent. (The idea behind such thresholds is to prevent the proliferation of small and potentially extremist parties, a problem that plagued Germany’s Weimar Republic between the world wars.) Turkey’s electoral hurdle is the highest of any liberal democracy in the world, thus preventing expression of the country’s diversity in a corresponding party landscape. This high barrier to entry is one of many sticking points in Turkey’s moribund accession process to the EU. A critical report by the Council of Europe in 2011 recommended that Turkey lower the threshold before the general elections that year.

This high bar was set in the early 1980s after Turkey emerged from military rule, at least partly as a way to keep Kurdish nationalists out of the political arena. It also aimed at bringing greater coherence to the fragile coalitions of the 1970s that led to periods of chaos and the subsequent military coup in 1980. But despite the hurdle, Turkish politics remained fragmented until 2002, the year the new AKP won a landslide election victory. In that election, it should be noted, a whopping 45 percent of the vote went unrepresented in parliament because it went to parties that did not meet the threshold. Over time, the 10 percent threshold has caused the disappearance of small center-right and center-left parties from the political landscape.

One aim of the high threshold was to push these small parties into coalitions with larger ones, but many have found it difficult to achieve common ground with either the AKP or its main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). As a result, a significant number of voters remain unrepresented at the parliamentary level. In 2002, the AKP won a new mandate with 62 percent of the seats in parliament — but only 34 percent of the popular vote. The trend of disproportionate representation continued in the 2007 election, when the AKP again won 62 percent of the seats with only 46.6 percent of the vote, and 2011, when it won 59 percent of the seats with just under 50 percent of the vote. The same rule works in Turkey’s 81 local districts, where seats are allocated after application of the 10 percent hurdle, meaning representation is disproportionate at the local level as well. These figures should make it obvious that large numbers of Turkish citizens do not feel that their own concerns receive adequate representation in the current party system.

The opposition — led by the CHP, which has included a pledge to abolish the threshold in its party program — is uniformly against keeping the threshold at 10 percent. The AKP too has long promised to lower the bar, but now Erdogan is dragging his feet. Recently, he offered his opinion that such a reform should no longer be on the agenda because the country’s need for political stability trumps it. In truth, Erdogan knows that the 10 percent threshold leaves some conservative voters unwilling to vote for any of the existing parties while moving others to grudgingly cast pragmatic ballots for the AKP. Otherwise such voters might opt for small parties further to the right, such as the Felicity Party, Saadet Partisi, or the Democratic Party.

Now that the Gezi Park movement has exposed deep discontent that cuts to some extent across political lines, the prime minister certainly does not want to lose those votes. He needs them in order to retain a margin of victory large enough to push the transition to a presidential system through parliament — a feat that would require him to garner at least 330 votes. (The prime minister is now subject to a self-imposed three-term limit that is set to end in 2015, but there is little doubt that he will lift the limit if he can’t get the constitutional changes done within that time frame.)

This is a shame, because reforming the electoral threshold could be a step toward solving some of the thorniest problems facing Turkey’s democracy. One of these, of course, involves the status of the Kurds. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political allies of the militant PKK, has in recent years evaded the threshold by having its members run as individuals, and then rejoin the BDP to serve as a bloc in parliament. However, because it uses this strategy, the BDP cannot access state funds provided to parties that run candidates on official slates. Lowering the threshold enough to get the BDP fully into parliament (the party won 6 percent of the vote in the most recent general election) would allow it to access these resources, and thus potentially weaken its dependence on the PKK, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States.

Viewed more broadly, reform of the electoral system has been long seen as an important component of Turkey’s process of democratization. The system has made kingmakers out of the party leaders who are in charge of drawing up the closed lists of candidates for parliament. Voters are asked to cast their ballots for a party’s full list, with no significant input on the individual candidates during the campaigns. Seats are then assigned to those on the list, starting from the top. And the members selected to be at the top of the list enter parliament already beholden to the party leaders who put them there. Opening up broader electoral opportunities to a wider spectrum of candidates could force politicians to listen to the vox populi — and as Turkey’s democracy deteriorates into a system of jailings without fair trial and violent suppression of protest, that clearly can’t happen too soon. In this case, lowering the bar could raise Turkey’s democratic discourse.

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