Turkey, 2018: Unusual alliance behavior

On 24 June, Turkey has concurrent presidential and assembly elections. These will usher in the new constitution, under which Turkey becomes a presidential system. (The current system is premier-presidential, having changed from parliamentary with the adoption of direct presidential elections.)

The election was called earlier than necessary in an attempt by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to catch the opposition unprepared. However, unexpectedly, several opposition parties have assembled joint lists an alliance (see clarification below) to contest the assembly elections. Polling suggests that they could win a majority.

The coalition behavior of the opposition is unusual in that it features parties running in a pre-election coalition for assembly elections while running separately for a concurrent presidential election. I know of few cases of major parties behaving this way. It makes sense, however, in that Turkey’s 10% nationwide threshold for assembly seats makes for potentially high disproportionality (so much so that I questioned whether it was “democratic” several years before the crackdown that followed the attempted coup). On the other hand, the presidency is elected by two-round majority, meaning first-round divisions do not necessarily prevent a group of parties eventually getting one of their own elected. (See Chile 2005 for another example of such unusual alliance behavior.; also Taiwan 2012.)

The Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), which counts on Kurdish support, is running separately. It cleared the threshold in both elections of 2015 (a, b), and may do so again.

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Zeynep Somer-Topcu clarifies, regarding the assembly alliances:

Ballot had each party and then a larger box for the alliance. You could just stamp anywhere within the box for alliance (if no party preference). Threshold applies to alliance but each party’s MPs enter based on their parties’ vote shares once alliance passes threshold.

(via Twitter, presented here with her OK)

I think it is quite unusual for alliances to work this way, allowing vote pooling across separate lists to help drag smaller parties over a threshold.

President of South Korea announces constitutional reform proposal

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced his support for amending the South Korean Constitution to allow presidents to serve two four-year terms, instead of the current non-renewable five-year term. Moon, of course, came to office following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, who became embroiled in a corruption scandal at the end of her non-renewable term: a similar fate befell her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who was recently arrested for a wide range of corruption charges.

Presumably, the idea behind this proposal is that it will encourage presidents to improve their behaviour at the end of their terms, given that they will be entitled to seek re-election. The proposal would also mean that members of the National Assembly would serve terms of the same lengths as the President, although elections to the two offices would not become concurrent–indeed, given that Moon’s term expires in 2022, and that the National Assembly’s term expires in 2020, it would shift South Korea to having legislative elections consistently in the middle of presidential terms.

The proposal has a number of other features. The Prime Minister will no longer be expected to act “under order of the President”, the voting age will be lowered from 19 to 18, and the President is no longer able to appoint the head of the Constitutional Court. However, there would appear to be no change in how the Prime Minister is appointed or removed: the Assembly can only pass a motion recommending that the PM or a minister may be removed, which both Samuels and Shugart (2010) and Robert Elgie have interpreted as not being sufficient for semi-presidentialism. The Prime Minister will also remain nominated only by the President (subject to Assembly confirmation).

Passage of the amendments requires approval of two-thirds of the National Assembly and majority support at a referendum with a majority turnout threshold. Moon’s Democratic Party only holds 121 seats in the 300-member assembly, and the opposition right-wing Liberty Korea Party holds 116, giving that party veto power over any potential amendment. That party appears to oppose the amendment proposal, instead apparently supporting a switch to semi-presidentialism, although the Democratic Party could block that. Moon’s proposal has greater public support, although the vast majority of the electorate support at least some change.

Bargaining failures in presidential and parliamentary systems

This is just a quick collection of thoughts, mainly due to my having seen on Twitter evidence of misconceptions about how these things work (shocking, I know).

With the US in what is technically a funding gap, colloquially known as a shutdown, some folks have pointed out that parliamentary systems have their own variant of this problem. The reference is, of course, to prolonged situations with “no government” after an election.

This is a false analogy.

Lack of a new government while negotiations are ongoing is nothing at all like a furlough of public employees or the closing of services. Nothing at all!

Failure to form a new government is not common in parliamentary systems. Usually after an election it takes anywhere from days to a couple months (shorter than US administration transitions). There are rare cases when it’s longer, such as Germany right now or the Netherlands for part of 2017.

In the interim, things keep going along as they did before the bargaining impasse (or before the election). Services are delivered, employees are paid, etc. If there is an analogy to situations in the US where bargaining over a new budget fails, it would be to a continuing resolution. The difference is that, whereas a continuing resolution requires the House, Senate, and President to agree to continue current levels of funding, the equivalent in a parliamentary context is automatic.

So does that mean that “unelected bureaucracies” get to “do as they please” while the politicians are trying to sort out their differences? (I saw someone claim that!) No, not at all. That’s the sense in which it is like a continuing resolution. The bureaucrats go on doing what they do, until such time as they have new instructions. The new instructions come in the form of a new government being agreed, which goes about implementing its program (which is generally laid out in a public “coalition agreement”).

(Related: It is also worth noting that parliamentary systems typically have nothing like “lame duck” administrations and legislative sessions. A caretaker during the transitional period, before a new government is agreed,  can’t take new initiatives.)

If the parties do not agree to form a new government, it means there is no majority in parliament that prefers some agreed new program over the status quo (the “continuing” part). If the process is protracted–or it becomes clear early that there is not such a majority–there usually can be recourse to an early election to let the voters resolve the deadlock. (If polls suggest the result would be the same, they’ll just keep on continuing till some combination of parties finds a new program it prefers, or the polling shifts enough to suggest the bargaining context would change after an election.)

Let’s go back to the point on bureaucratic agencies. Bureaucratic oversight is a different matter. US bureaucracy is indeed relatively more constrained than its counterparts in most parliamentary systems, but that does not mean that the parliamentary situation–with or without a bargaining impasse–is in any sense one of bureaucrats being powerful and unconstrained.

In many (not all!) parliamentary systems, civil servants within bureaucratic agencies can be given discretion to do their jobs precisely because it’s easier for politicians to rein them in, if necessary. There is only one political principal (again, not always), which we can think of as the parliamentary majority, although in a more immediate sense it is the cabinet. And that means either the caretaker cabinet that continues in the absence of a new government, or the electorally legitimated new government that is formed.

In the US each principal (executive, House, Senate) has to worry that the bureaucracy might follow the other. Plus it is generally harder to change law (three veto gates). So there are both incentive and capacity to bind the bureaucracy ex ante. Whether one form of bureaucratic oversight is “better” isn’t clear. It gets complicated. The main point is that the structure of agencies and the process of oversight and constraint “mirror” the wider institutional set-up and distribution of political power.

Does all this mean that parliamentary government is clearly superior because it is inherent to presidentialism that bargaining failures over spending and policy occur, with no way to resolve them? That is, because there’s no way to get a new government or go to elections? Well, that’s not so clear! A funding gap or shutdown is not actually inherent to presidentialism.

There aren’t any other presidential democracies that I know of where a funding gap could happen. Most such constitutions have either an automatic equivalent of a continuing resolution, or a reversionary point that favors the executive’s proposal.

I would tend to agree that there are lots of reasons to prefer multiparty parliamentary bargaining over the inter-branch kind the US has, or other (pure) presidential systems have. But there are lots of other models, and even the other presidential ones do not have this recurring problem, due to differences in institutional design and budgetary rules.

The Polish president’s veto

Polish President Andrzej Duda has exercised his veto against two of the government’s bills to change the appointment of judges. Media accounts are treating this action as a “surprise”, but it really should not be seen as such. Both the government (premier and cabinet) and the president (directly elected) are of the same party, Law and Justice (PiS), yet the institutional dynamics make the action unsurprising.

First of all, such a possibility was signaled by the president on 18 July. Secondly, the theory of presidentialized parties (Samuels and Shugart, 2010) should make presidential action against their own governing party’s controversial decisions the default expectation. That is, the institutions “predict” such actions, and it is politics that sometimes intervenes and prevents the president from acting on his or her independent mandate. In this case, the institutions prevailed.

Duda is not the leader of the party in the sense of who holds the formal organizational title; that would be Jarosław Kaczyński, a former premier. But that fact only makes today’s veto by the Polish president an even better case for demonstrating the power of the argument. The fundamental point of my book with Samuels is that parties face a “moral hazard” problem under presidentailism, due to separate survival (fixed terms). Once a presidential candidate has won the election (separate origin), he is no longer an agent of the party. He now has (potential) incentive to respond to his wider constituency and head-of-state obligations, even when those might conflict with the party that nominated him. He is secure in his fixed term against efforts by the party to restrain him, unlike a prime minister (who, by definition, can be dismissed by the assembly majority or by the party).

One manifestation of presidentialization of parties can be the reversal of the principal-agent relationship, such that the president redirects his own party, making it his agent, rather than the other way around. But–we point out in the book–this is only one possibility. Another is that the president and the party face conflict–an intraparty separation of powers.

The latter seems to be the case here. I heard a BBC interview earlier this morning with an official of the PiS party. He slammed the president for going against the party’s manifesto, and said that the government (which is a single party, with a majority) should be allowed to implement its promises, including judicial reform. The statement overlooks a key institutional fact: Poland is not parliamentary, but semi-presidential. The president is freed from the manifesto by virtue of his separation of origin and survival–that is, his independent election and fixed term.

Duda received significantly more votes in winning the presidency (in a two-round election) than the PiS earned in winning its parliamentary majority. The governing party’s majority is manufactured by the electoral system (details in my earlier entry), whereas Duda’s was earned in the two-candidate runoff. In addition to the electoral system, the PiS surely owes its being in the position to gain that assembly majority from Duda–or, specifically to its own election in the “honeymoon” of Duda (again, see the earlier entry for details).

I do not know if the issue of judicial reform was raised in his own election campaign, but the wider point is that it hardly matters. He has the institutional capacity to act independently, and he did. He has the constitutional power of veto, and he exercised it.

For better or worse, this is how presidentialism (including semi-) is supposed to work. As a head of state (who must deal with other governments unhappy with Polish plans) and with a wider popular constituency (with many Poles in the streets over this issue), and protected by the fixed term, the president can act against the will of the government and its own parliamentary majority.

The veto takes a three-fifths vote of parliament to override, and the PiS is far short of this threshold. Unless it can bring other parties around to this bill, the president’s veto will stand. What this might mean for Duda and his relationship with his party is not for me to predict. But, based on the theory of presidentialized parties, what has happened today is far from surprising; it is predictable.

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.

Zambia Constitutional amendments

Last week, Zambia enacted a package of amendments to the constitution that has been years in the making.

Among the amendments are a number of significant changes to the presidency. In the last decade, two early presidential elections (2008 and 2015) were instigated by the incumbent’s death. In the wake of the cost and difficulty of organising these elections, there were calls for the institution of a vice-presidency elected as the president’s running mate and replacing the vice president on a permanent basis. This change was included in the amendments, replacing the previous position of vice president which was appointed by the President and only substituted him on an interim basis.

Another change was to the president’s dissolution power. Under the previous provisions, the President was able to call an early general election at any time, which would include both presidential and legislative elections. The new provisions stipulates that such a dissolution can only be effected “if the Executive cannot effectively govern the Republic due to the failure of the National Assembly to objectively and reasonably carry out its legislative function”, and must be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, which determines whether or not that is the case. This seems to me as rather ill-advised; whether or not parliament fulfils its role ‘objectively’ or ‘reasonably’, and whether or not the President is able to ‘govern effectively’, are fundamentally political questions, and getting the courts involved in that could seriously undermine their neutrality and independence.

Additionally, in response to widespread calls for such a change, the electoral system for president has been changed from plurality to two-round majority. The original draft presented to parliament several years ago also envisioned the adoption of Mixed-Member Proportional for legislative elections, but this was removed from the bill by the National Assembly.

Lastly, in what seems to be a growing trend in new or heavily-amended constitutions, the amendments introduce federalism (seeing as they include lists dividing up competences among national, provincial and local government which are entrenched along with the rest of the constitution), but call it a system of ‘devolved’ governance.

Ukraine deal

The deal signed earlier today in Ukraine calls for a return to the constitution instituted after the Orange Revolution protests (but later reversed). Those provisions significantly weakened the presidency–mainly by giving the president essentially no discretion in the choice of a prime minister, who was defined as the candidate of the legislative majority. On the other hand, the president under that constitution still retained control over key ministries, such as interior and defense, as well as a veto requiring two thirds to override. So the protesters are right to be skeptical, even if this is a big concession by President Yanukovych.

The agreement also mentions reforms to electoral laws, but does not clearly address the electoral system itself, which is obviously critical inasmuch as it determines how votes are translated into seats in empowering the very legislative majority that would appoint the PM. And, as I noted before, the current system is highly disproportional and personalistic, and these features allowed the pro-Yanukovych bloc to win a majority, counting pro-Yanukovych “independents” (bearing no party label), despite the president’s Party of Regions having barely a quarter of the votes. Of course, with the renewed mobilization of the opposition, it is less clear who would benefit from the current system’s disproportionality, but the opposition would seem to have a clear interest in a return to the party-list system used in 2006 and 2007. And that system’s proportionality would presumably offer the pro-Yanukovych forces a hedge against possible voter retributions whenever the new legislative election is held.

The agreement also only specifically refers to early presidential elections.

Obviously a situation still in flux.