Turkey referendum: Latin Americanization on the road to autocracy

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16th, to vote on a set of constitutional amendments which would change the country’s system of government to presidentialism. Though it seems that in Turkey, the current system is generally referred to as ‘parliamentary’, Turkey has actually been semi-presidential (specifically, premier-presidential) since the country’s first direct presidential election was held in 2014.

The amendments passed the three-fifths legislative majority necessary to put them to referendum with support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Introducing presidentialism has long been president Erdogan’s express wish. The idea has apparently been around in Turkish politics for a while before it was adopted by the Erdogan and his party, AKP. Full presidentialism seems to have been ‘plan A’, so introducing semi-presidentialism (passed in 2007, entering operation in 2014) was perhaps only ever meant as a way-station toward this goal.

The main details of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Establishing presidentialism:

As stated above the president is already elected directly, specifically using a two-round system. The president is to become both head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and fire ministers and the vice president. There is no requirement for the Grand National Assembly to confirm appointments. Executive office is incompatible with assembly membership. Interpolation of ministers is to be removed from the constitution, leaving MPs with written questions.

  1. Legislative powers:

The president is to have veto power over legislation, subject to absolute majority override in the assembly. He is to have the power to issue decrees in “matters concerning the executive power” and regulations “to provide for the enforcement of the laws, provided they are not contrary to them”. These cannot affect fundamental rights, except under a state of emergency; an emergency can be declared by the president without confirmation by the assembly, but the latter must be notified immediately and can shorten or end it at any time. These decree powers are essentially the same as those currently held by the cabinet. The president would also dominate the budgetary process: the complete budget is to be proposed by the president and put to a straight up-or-down vote in the assembly without possibility of amendment, with failure to adopt a budget within a timeframe leading to continuation of previous arrangements.

  1. Term lengths and dissolution power:

The assembly’s term in extended to five years (from the current four) and legislative and presidential elections are to be held concurrently. If the presidency becomes vacant, fresh presidential elections must be held. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections; if the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which presidential and parliamentary election cycles are held concurrently again.

The president is to be limited to being elected twice, but there are some exceptions, the first of which is that a mid-term vacancy-filling election doesn’t count towards the total. The current presidential power to dissolve the assembly is retained, in addition to a new clause which enables the assembly to dissolve itself, by three-fifths majority vote – in either case, fresh elections are held for both president and assembly, who serve new five-year terms. Early concurrent elections triggered by the assembly can always be contested by the president.

  1. Impeachment

The president or any member of the executive is indicted by two-thirds majority in the assembly (upon which many powers, including dissolution, are suspended), which takes the decision on removal to the Supreme Court. A president which has thus been removed is ineligible for re-election.

  1. Judiciary

The acts of the president, previously protected, are now to be subject to judicial review. The structure of the judiciary will not change much – with the role of the president in appointments remaining quite strong. Of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the president is to appoint 6 and the assembly is to appoint 7 (4 of whom must be judges from the highest courts) – for renewable four-year terms. The Council appoints most (two-thirds to three-quarters) of the judges of each of the highest courts, with the rest being appointed by the president directly.

According to the BBC, Erdogan claims that the new system will ‘resemble those in France and the US’. There is clearly little truth to this. First of all, France is semi-presidential, specifically the premier-presidential variant. This means that the prime minister, while appointed by the president, can formally only be removed by the assembly – in other words, what Turkey has now. These amendments would outright abolish the prime ministership and parliamentary responsibility, granting the president (already in a position to play a dominant role in the country’s government) absolute control over the executive branch.

Does that mean that the new system will essentially be the same as the US? Not really. Presidential or not, the proposed system includes numerous features bearing little resemblance the American model of checks and balances. The amendments would invest the Turkish president with extensive constitutional decree powers, allow him to all but dictate the budget, but on the other hand leave him with a substantially weaker veto than the US. The absence of assembly confirmation vote for ministers, not to mention presidential dissolution power, are also alien to the US constitution. Overall, the proposed institutional framework is to bear far greater resemblance to past and present constitutions of Latin America, where assembly confirmation is non-existent, emergency and decree powers are common, while some of the other institutions in question have featured occasionally, e.g. presidential dissolution power (Ecuador, formerly Chile and Argentina) and weaker veto (Brazil, formerly Venezuela).

In any case, the proposed amendments represent an immense consolidation of power in the hands of president Erdogan. It would probably allow him to serve beyond the supposed limit of two five-year terms. Judicial appointments involve a somewhat greater degree of presidential influence over a judiciary that has already lost a great deal of independence in recent years. Judicial review, needless to say, will not amount to much. Furthermore, the requirement for judicial ratification may leave impeachment ultimately toothless even in the unlikely event that the requisite majority were achieved in the assembly. Meanwhile, the weak veto and the assembly’s own (weaker) power to call early elections is unlikely to provide much balance in practice. Though dissolution would entail new elections for both president and assembly, a president armed with the power to dissolve the assembly still seems more likely to have the upper hand in the exceptional situation his party ever lacks a majority there – exceptional because of the country’s majoritarian system, and because the president’s very power of calling early elections enables him to do so opportunistically, as Erdogan did in 2015[1].

The Venice Commission’s report characterises the proposed changes as “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. It certainly feels hard to disagree.


[1] One might add (as the Venice Commission does) the fact that elections will be concurrent, which is certainly true, though, as we have recently seen, it’s certainly possible (though still uncommon) for countries to elect a president in the second round that was not of the legislative majority elected concurrently with the first round (e.g. Argentina, Peru), while more generally, two-round systems cause vote fragmentation in the first round. If elections in Turkey remain competitive, it may be that the two round system will, in the long run, cause fragmentation which will spread to the assembly. Perhaps more likely is that once in a while, the concurrent elections could result in divided government as in the first scenario I mention here. A situation like that might provoke Linzian scenarios, but is probably most likely to simply result in early elections at some point, whose outcome would most likely be a reversion to the regular unified control.

Turkey’s coup

Awful, eh? I mean, in particular, the aftermath. It seems we are watching the consolidation of a potentially totalitarian state.

I don’t know enough about Turkey to know if that statement is really “true”, but given how often I have written about Turkey’s elections and constitutional reforms in the past, I thought there should at least be a space here to discuss what’s happening…

Turkey 2015b: Erdogan’s gambit pays off (apparently)

Well, this is depressing. The Turkish AKP party apparently has regained the parliamentary majority in today’s general election, the second in the country this year.

While the Guardian calls it a “surprise“, I don’t think so. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presumably knew what he was doing when he refused to go into coalition following the results of the June election, and let parliament be dissolved instead.

Quoting from the Guardian live blog, 14:10 update:

With 95% of votes counted, the AKP won almost 50% of all votes, according to the state news agency Anadolu. The main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) stood at 25.2 percent, smashing all possibilities of a coalition government. The HDP scraped over the unusually high threshold of 10% with 10.6 percent of all votes, down from 13% in the 7 June election.

At least the parliamentary majority is not due to exclusion of the HDP.

2015b: Greece and Turkey back to the polls

Both Greece and Turkey had notable elections earlier in 2015: Greece in January, when SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left) came to power; Turkey in June, when the AKP (Justice and Development Party) fell short of a majority and the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic party, which has much Kurdish support) cleared the country’s 10% threshold for the first time.

Now, both are going back to the polls before the year is out, meaning we will have elections “2015a” and “2015b” for both countries. Greece is no stranger to early elections, but I believe this will be a first for Turkey.

In Greece, once PM Alexis Tsipras completed the passage of the measures required to secure new EU loan guarantees (the third “bailout”), he resigned, triggering early elections. He passed the measures with the help of the opposition parties, given the negative votes from within SYRIZA. The drachma nostalgist splinter from SYRIZA will contest the 20 September election as Popular Unity.

In Turkey, no agreement was reached on any of the possible coalition (or minority government) options, and so an election was called. The new election will be 1 November.

The nature of the countries’ electoral laws will make these worth watching.* Under Greek law, a second election within 18 months of an earlier one is under a different list format. Normally, Greek party lists are mostly open (there are provisions to ensure safe seats for party leaders). In case of a new election within a year and half, the lists are closed.

Greece has been through this process of closed lists in a second election already, as recently as 2012. In that case, most closed lists were ranked by parties–at least in the range of positions in which candidates are viable–in a manner highly consistent with how they had been ranked by voters’ preference votes on the earlier, open lists. In this case, obviously, SYRIZA will have many list ranks vacated by defectors. It will be interesting to see how much the SYRIZA leadership reorders the lists, given this opportunity. (In 2012, SYRIZA changed the ranks of none of its open-list winners.)

Despite polls showing a close race, I find it difficult to imagine that SYRIZA would not again be the plurality party. It may not even face a “setback” despite its own splinter, as 29% in a context of 25% undecided (according to one poll) would translate into a greater share of the decided vote than it had in the election January, which was 36%. The Greek system gives the plurality party an automatic bonus, and as we saw in the earlier election, 36% can give a party right around half the seats.  [See Henry’s comment. I may have that point about undecided voters wrong, and SYRIZA could be in trouble in the polls after all.]

In the Turkish case, the Kurdish political organizations prior to 2015 had avoided the risk that the high nationwide threshold would exclude them entirely (were they to run lists) by running their candidates as independents. They actually became quite good at it–sometimes even electing two or more candidates per district through effective vote-management strategies. In other words, to the Kurdish political forces, the system was effectively single non-transferable vote: elect individuals by ensuring your votes are efficiently divided. For an example, see Van in 2011, with a district magnitude of 7: Three seats for the AKP on 40% of the vote, and four independents with individual vote totals ranging from 9.7% to 15.4% (48.7% combined).

In the June election, the HDP, consolidating Kurdish and left-liberal opposition forces, won 13.1% of the vote. It thus cleared the threshold fairly easily. If they break 10% again, it is hard to see how the government-formation process will be any easier. Or perhaps the AKP counting on its recent resumption of its crackdown on Kurdish separatism attracting hardline votes that will get it back over half of parliament.

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* I know, I know. I always say that.

** SYRIZA’s coalition partner, Independent Greeks, is polling very close to the 3% threshold. It won 4.75% in January.

Turkey 2015: The AKP’s non-majority is not a surprise, and higher thresholds can only increase the largest party’s seat share

The reporting on the Turkish election results is treating the AKP’s fall to less than half the seats as a really big surprise. There was even a column in a Turkish newspaper that suggested the high threshold may have been a reason for the non-majority. This post attempts to set the record straight: these claims are bogus.

Was the AKP losing its majority a surprise?

Pre-election polls suggested the AKP would earn around 40% of the vote, which proved spot on. (The link there is an article from May 28, which I cited in my pre-election post.)

The Turkish electoral system is sufficiently proportional (although only modestly so) that a leading party with around 40% of the votes would be highly unlikely to get a majority of seats–UNLESS there were sufficient numbers of wasted votes for parties falling below the threshold. That threshold is set at 10%, and applied nationwide, in spite of all seats being allocated in 85 multi-member districts. In the past, the AKP had won parliamentary majorities on less than half the votes (and as low as 34%), but only due to a large below-threshold vote for minor parties and independents (many of them Kurds who this time coalesced behind the HDP).

Once the HDP cleared the threshold, there was essentially no way for the AKP to get a majority. In the same pre-election polls, the HDP was in the range of 8.5-11.5%. Thus it was a knife edge whether it would clear, but hardly a big surprise. And if the HDP had a good chance of clearing the threshold, the AKP could not get a majority unless its vote share was considerably higher than anticipated.

Did the threshold actually hurt the AKP this time?

Regarding that threshold, there was a piece in the Monkey Cage blog that was otherwise a very fine overview of “How the Kurds upended Turkish politics“, but in which one point makes no sense:

As editor of the English-language Hurriyet Daily News Murat Yetkin shrewdly pointed out, the AKP may have been a victim of its own dependence on the unfair 10 percent threshold rule. If the threshold had been lowered to 5 or 7 percent, argued Yetkin, the AKP still would have been prevented from adopting Erdogan’s presidential system, but its parliamentary majority would have been salvaged.

That point actually does not seem so shrewd to me. Yetkin himself further says:

Because of the complicated calculation system that the 10 percent threshold brings with it, the AK Parti has lost its parliamentary majority.

The system is indeed somewhat complex, but there is nothing complicated about how thresholds affect the outcome. If you attain the stipulated minimum vote share nationwide, you qualify for seats in any of the 85 districts in which you have sufficient votes.

How could it be that a LOWER threshold would INCREASE the seat share of the largest party?

he only thing I can imagine Yetkin may have meant–although he does not spell this out–is that the HDP vote itself would have been lower if the threshold had been lower, and implicitly, the AKP vote would have been higher. In other words, HDP, according to such an argument, may have benefited from strategic voting by voters who wanted to ensure it got 10%. Given that it got almost 13%, which was–as I noted above–more than pre-election polls predicted, while the AKP result was in line with those polls, such an argument (which, again, Yetkin did not actually make) seems a stretch.

A “normal” result, given the electoral system and HDP being over the threshold

The bottom line is that the result of this election, while quite a watershed for Turkish politics, has given Turkey a fairly “normal” result for an electoral system of its average magnitude (around 6.5). The threshold, in the end, did not bar any significant political force from representation, unlike in previous elections. A largest party winning around 47% of the seats on about 41% of the votes is nothing out of the ordinary. Whether Turkish-Kurdish politics can be as “normalized” as the election result itself is another matter. Stay tuned to the government-formation process and aftermath for clues.

Turkish election, 2015

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.

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* 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.

Turkey’s new semi-presidential politics

By JD Mussel

At Al-Monitor, Cengiz Candar offers an insightful perspective on politics under Turkey’s now semi-presidential constitution.

Turkey’s Constitution was amended in 2007 to make the president directly elected, changing the executive format from parliamentary to premier-presidential. Accordingly, the first presidential elections were held on August 10th, which were won by majority in the first round by Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been prime minister since 2003.

Outgoing (indirectly-elected) president Abdullah Gul (who, along with Erdogan, was one of the AK party’s founders), had been considered the strongest contender for the party chairmanship and premiership* now vacated by Erdogan. However, Erdogan appears to have viewed this prospect as a threat, and has instead designated Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister, to be confirmed by a special party congress on the 27th, the day before Erdogan’s swearing-in.

As Candar puts it:

Erdogan does not want Gul at the head of the AKP, and he does not want him as the next prime minister of Turkey.

The reason is transparent: Gul cannot and will not be a puppet prime minister for Erdogan, who wants a more or less South American-style presidency for the next five years, if not 10.

To be more constitutionally exact, it will resemble a French-style (non-cohabitation) presidency, considering its premier-presidentialism framework as well as the AKP’s clear majority in the Grand National Assembly, which it partly owes to the country’s majoritarian 10%-threshold electoral system. This combination of institutions should work to strongly presidentialize parties, and invest the president with the effective power to choose and fire his own prime minister, as is the case in France.

However, it would seem that the situation might develop differently if Gul does manage to become party chairman after all. It certainly doesn’t seem likely to happen, but it would certainly be interesting if it did. Are there precedents of such a thing happening? Has a majority party in a premier-presidential system ever successfully picked its own agent as prime minister against the wishes of a president of the same party**? Has it even been tried?

 


* The article above mentions a constitutional provision obliging the president to appoint the head of the ‘victorious’ party as PM, but I failed to find such a provision in the constitution, which simply states that the President appoints the PM.

** That is, a non-cohabitation situation.