Turkey: referendum post-mortem

As most are undoubtedly aware by now, the package of constitutional amendments proposed by Turkey’s government passed narrowly in the referendum two weeks ago.

I feel like my first post on the subject did not adequately cover the already deeply authoritarian background in which the referendum took place. Freedom of speech and the press have never been fully established in Turkey, and their suppression has worsened over the last decade. Moreover, since AKP rose to power in 2002, the public sector has been subjected to repeated purges, and not just since last year’s failed coup. The referendum campaign itself was strongly affected by this, and the legitimacy of the outcome should certainly be questioned. Claire Berlinski writes[1]:

“The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none…

Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. [my link]”

It is clear that many of these democratic deficits have existed for years now. Not just in terms of democratic rights or process, but also the constitutional checks and balances. As Berlinski argues, the referendum “merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs”. Dissolution power, extensive decree powers, emergency powers – all existed already. The only difference was that they were mostly vested in the government. Under semi-presidentialism, president’s Erdogan’s position was already secure[2], but his power depended largely on being able to control the government.

In theory, under the semi-presidential system, AKP MPs (including the Prime Minister) could use their position to check the president’s power by scrutinizing the government and holding it to account. In practice, of course, they have little reason to do so. Therefore, the only situation in which the president (and the government) might be subject to meaningful check would be if the government ever lacked a majority in the Grand National Assembly – in extremis, this could have resulted in cohabitation, depriving Erdogan of control over the executive entirely.

My current theory is that AKP’s loss of its assembly majority in 2015a is what motivated Erdogan to seek a fully presidential system – completely eliminating the assembly’s confidence power over the government and vesting all executive power (plus decree powers) in the president and his agents. Now Erdogan will be secure in his position as president, as before, but his control over the executive will be secure too.

Therefore, despite this change to presidentialism (and earlier, semi-presidentialism), this democratic breakdown comes in the ‘parliamentarism’ column. Was it something inherent in parliamentarism that made, or allowed it to happen? Probably not. All else being equal, things could have easily followed much the same path.

What probably did make a difference, I think, is the electoral system – specifically the 10% threshold, which has a strong tendency to manufacture majorities[3]. At the 2002 election, the AKP came to power with a single-party majority gained off a mere 34.3% of the vote. Admittedly, at every election since (except 2015a), the AKP received more than 46% of the vote, vote shares which would have granted it majorities even in most proportional systems. But I wonder whether, under a truly proportional system for the assembly[4]:

  1. Fewer voters would have voted strategically for AKP (at the 2007, 2011, and 2015b elections), instead voting for other parties which would have been viable as a result of the lower threshold; and/or
  2. Lacking a majority from 2002 through 2007 would have prevented AKP from accruing an incumbency advantage (of any kind – democratic or not) at the 2007 election (assuming it would still have managed to form the government).

If either were true (and both seem likely to me), it is considerably more difficult to see how the party would have managed to undermine democracy and usurp power in the way it has. Without a majority, the other parties would have been able to check AKP’s consolidation of power, it would have been much more difficult for the party to change the constitution to introduce direct presidential elections (2007) or undermine the independence of the judiciary (2010), and it would have been difficult for it to force through its own choice of president in 2007. Even if the above propositions were not true, proportional representation and a multi-party legislature[5] would undoubtedly have delayed the erosion.

[1] I strongly recommend Berlinski’s account of the decline of Turkey’s democracy since 2002 (and the atrocious western response), Guilty Men: How Democracies Die.

[2] Meaning, he cannot be removed by majority vote in the assembly or by his party.

[3] Though I do not think this feature is inherently undemocratic, majoritarianism is problematic (especially in young democracies). If it is included in a system, it should always be balanced out by countervailing checks such as strong bicameralism and a well-entrenched constitution.

[4] At a minimum, this would mean a threshold reduction from the current 10% to 5%, ceteris paribus.

[5] Or a powerful upper house elected by proportional representation, especially with non-concurrent and/or staggered elections.

5 thoughts on “Turkey: referendum post-mortem

  1. Thanks, JD, for this post.

    I may be wrong, but I think Erdogan started talking about an “executive presidency” (an inexact term, to be sure) several years back when they first were debating direct election.

    I’d also like to plug my own post from 2007 in which I questioned whether Turkey–or at least its electoral system–could qualify as democratic.


    • I realise that by saying I think the 2015a election motivated the proposal of presidentialism I contradicted an earlier comment I made, to the effect that full presidentialism had been the plan all along (even before direct presidential elections were introduced to the constitution in 2007). So let me clarify: though I have no doubt presidentialism was Erdogan’s long-term ambition anyway, I think that AKP’s vote slip in 2015a (and the prospect of such an outcome recurring) is what motivated him to push for it at this time.


  2. Some countries are considering a formal prohibition of out-of-country voting : Turkish nationals residing in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria or Belgium would then not be able to vote in the Turkish embassy or consulate on the referenudm on the death penalty.*

    On the one hand it’s an interesting legal question : can country A forbid country B to allow B’s nationals an out-of-country vote in B’s embassy/colsulate in country A ?

    On the other hand : I think those anti-Erdogan politicians are choosing the wrong battleground to confront Erdogan : he has already won more important battles (more structural impact) than the reintroduction of the death penalty, and the death penalty is only a risk to vilains most people do not feel sympathy about.

    *DE http://www.dw.com/en/germany-rules-out-turkish-death-penalty-referendum/a-38713225
    BE https://www.rtbf.be/info/belgique/detail_peine-de-mort-les-turcs-de-belgique-pourront-ils-voter-au-referendum-d-erdogan-charles-michel-ne-le-tolerera-pas?id=9599183


    • “… and the death penalty is only a risk to villains most people do not feel sympathy about.”
      Would that that were always so. In the same week that Ian Brady died, I’d normally agree, but this is also the same fortnight as Ahok’s conviction for allegedly blaspheming the Quran. So I wouldn’t trust people like Erdogan to identify “villains” without a large number of false positives and false negatives.


  3. With “people who do not have sympathy with convicted vilains”, I meant people in the boycotting countries over here in Europe, not those who actually feel and fear the Erdogan way of dealing with the opposition


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