Turkey is holding general elections on 7 June. It is an unusually important election, coming as it is after the first direct presidential election. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking parliamentary support to amend the constitution to make the presidency far more powerful–currently it is mostly ceremonial. For that he needs either his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to win two thirds of the seats, or to have willing coalition partners that would get a constitutional amendment bill to two thirds.
This time around, a potentially significant party for the Kurds is running. In past elections, Kurdish candidates have generally run as independents. According to Henri J. Barkey, in Foreign Policy, the AKP is polling in the low forty-percent range. The main party of the Kurdish minority, People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is polling anywhere from 8.5% to 11.5%. Which end of that range the HDP ends up in is critical, because Turkey uses a 10% nationwide threshold.
In 2007, I questioned whether the Turkish system even should be considered democratic, because of its very high threshold, combined with district-level allocation of all seats. That is, there is a system of 550 seats divided among 80 or so constituencies, for a mean district magnitude of around 7. However, even if a party wins sufficient votes to to get seats in one or many of these districts, it actually will get no seats at all if it has not won 10% nationwide. I have previously offered some egregious examples of district-level results generated by this combination of districting and nationwide threshold. Independents, however, can and often do win seats–many of these have been informally affiliated with Kurdish parties that couldn’t win 10% nationwide but could elect some “non-party” candidates in specific districts where their supporters are concentrated.
In 2011, I did some calculations meant to estimate how many parties should be expected based on this system. Over the 1995-2007 period, the averages are about what my estimates implied they should be. I concluded that maybe the system was bifurcating into two parallel systems–one of parties passing the 10% threshold, and another of non-party MPs representing Kurds and other interests.
The 2015 election will be a major test of both the representativeness of the electoral system and the strategy of the HDP. If the party clears 10%, it can hold the balance of power and force Erdogan to make concessions to the Kurdish minority in order to get his presidential powers.* If HDP fails, the AKP will probably get a manufactured two-thirds majority and be able to govern and amend the constitution at will. And, in that event, the Kurds will be worse off for not even having a bloc of independent legislators present in the parliament. For their sake, and the sake of Turkish democracy (such as it is, I hope the HDP and Kurdish leaders know what they are doing. As Barkey, the worst thing would be for the HDP to just miss the threshold, and AKP to get two thirds.
* Some weeks ago, I recall seeing an article in the Economist that suggested Erdogan was intending to strike just such a deal. The tenor of Barkey’s Foreign Policy piece is quite different. I don’t know the Turkish situation well enough to know which is likely.