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.

Canadian electoral reform process: NDP now says there could be a referendum

Canada’s New Democrats are now willing to support a referendum on electoral-system change, “if it means consensus among parties” on the parliamentary committee, which is to report on Dec. 1.

Previously, the NDP and the Liberals and other advocates of reform have been opposed to a referendum, either because they consider the Liberals’ platform pledge (and that of the NDP and Greens) a sufficient mandate for change, or because they fear a referendum can’t be won . Or both. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have consistently said such a big change must not happen without a referendum. Presumably they think they can defeat it.

The above-linked National Post story refers to this as not “the first time the NDP appeared to have out-maneuvered the Liberals on the electoral reform file.” This remark refers to the NDP having successfully forced the Liberals to make the composition of the committee reflect the parties’ shares of the popular vote instead of their shares of seats. The Liberals have a (manufactured) majority of seats, and the norm for committees is generally proportional representation according to seats.

At the time, I thought the Liberals’ concession to their not having a majority was a clear case of “act-contingency”–not wanting to appear opposed to a potentially popular concept of reform, whatever their sincere preferences on their platform commitment once they (surprisingly) won a majority of seats.

However, in recent weeks, I have thought that the non-majority on the committee was opening up a “perfect” opportunity for the Liberals to declare, “sorry, we tried, but could not get cross-party consensus”, and let the status quo remain. The NDP move may be an effort to head off that outcome and take their chances with a referendum. They might need to get a deal with the Conservatives to make it work.

That may not be quite as far-fetched as it seems. Both parties actually could benefit from a moderate PR system. For the NDP, usually the third-largest party nationally, the appeal of PR is obvious. For the Conservatives, the benefit would be from allowing the party’s disparate wings to appeal separately, either as factions competing within small multi-seat districts* or eventually as separate parties, as they were not so long ago.

The next several weeks may determine whether electoral reform can advance, at least to a referendum, against what remain pretty formidable hurdles.

 

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* I am assuming it would have to be STV or open lists. Closed lists are probably out of the question, even as part of an MMP system. And while the NDP and Greens logically prefer MMP (more highly proportional, even with only province-level compensation), the Conservatives and Liberals would like small-magnitude PR, if keeping the status quo looks uncertain. (And if, for the Liberals, AV is not achievable.)

PEI 2016: Referendum favors MMP

The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) held a referendum (“plebiscite”) on electoral reform. The voting, which could be done online or by phone, took place from 27 October to 7 November, Results have now been announced, and the majority preference is mixed-member proportional (MMP).

Interestingly, it was a vote among multiple options, conducted by alternative vote (instant runoff). The initial plurality choice was the status quo, first past the post (FPTP). But this was the first choice of only 31.2%. The runner up in first preferences was MMP, with 29%.

Through elimination of lower-ranking choices and transfer of preferences, MMP came out with a majority on the fourth round of counting, 55% to 45% over FPTP (leaving out exhausted ballots, which were just under 5%).

Other options were “FPTP with leaders” (status quo, except that party leaders who did not win a riding would get a seat if the party cleared 10%), “Preferential Voting” (i.e., alternative vote), and something new called “Dual-Member Proportional“.

Perhaps it is not at all surprising that the transfer patterns reveal a “change as little as possible if we must change” coalition and a “more change” coalition. FPTP took a bigger lead on the count following elimination of FPTP+, by far more timid of the reform proposals. After the elimination of AV, which would be the next most-similar proposal to the status quo, MMP actually got more of these voters (43.9% to 36.7% for FPTP). Given that DMPR got 19.5%, the pro-AV voters had a clear majority for some sort of PR over keeping majoritarianism. On the final count, MMP got 82.6% of the eliminated votes for DMPR. This adds up to quite a clear consensus for a move away from the majoritarian model. (Note that STV was not an option.)

PEI had a referendum on an official proposal for MMP in 2005, which went down to a big defeat. Since that time, the province has continued to have some of the odd results (e.g. 2007) that are inherent to FPTP, especially given such a small assembly. In the most recent provincial election (2015) there was another large manufactured majority, although the Green Party managed to win a seat despite just 11% of the provincewide vote.

The timing of the vote is interesting, given that the federal parliamentary committee studying electoral reform is due to report in just a few weeks.

The PEI referendum result is non-binding.

JD’s Switzerland trip (with photos!)

In February I spent a weekend in Switzerland with a friend. We toured Basel and Bern, visiting the Federal Assembly and the legislatures of two cantons, and also witnessed campaigning for a number referendums (and more!) that would be held the next week.

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On electronic displays this poster showed up as a gif, with the trucks rushing through

On the federal level (and in similar terms in most Cantons and municipalities), Switzerland has two types of citizen-initiated referendum:

  • Votes on ‘popular initiatives’, which amend the constitution. These require the gathering of 100,000 signatures in no more than 18 months. To be approved in the referendum, they require both an overall majority of those voting and a majority of Cantonal votes.
  • ‘Optional’ or ‘facultative’ referendums, which concern recently-enacted federal laws (I like to call these veto-referendums). These require the gathering of 50,000 signatures (or 8 Cantons – though I don’t think this happens in practice) in no more than 100 days from the publication of the act in question. For the act to be vetoed it merely requires to be rejected by a majority of those voting.

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    A striking multilingual poster near the Basel docks

When we visited there were four federal referendums about to be held, of which three were popular initiatives and one was an optional referendum. As it happened, all four votes would follow the government’s official recommendation: rejection of all the initiatives and approval of the federal law.

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Central Bern, a protest against the popular initiative for the deportation of criminal migrants

The campaigns were very visible and there were posters were everywhere, both in public places alongside regular commercial advertising and on apartment balconies and small shops’ doors. We also saw many different leaflets, including some published by political parties. Far more visible than in the UK, which I also visited during the recent referendum – in London, the only sign I saw of the campaign were some flyerers at a tube station at rush hour on the day of the referendum.

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Cantonal referendum posters in Basel. Note the middle one, sponsored by the Liberal Democratic Party

(As a side note, Switzerland has virtually no regulation of campaign finance, either on the federal or cantonal level. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.)

A number of Cantonal referendums were held on the same day as the federal ones, and we saw posters for these in both Basel and Bern.

We visited three legislative buildings:

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Basel-City’s Canton/City hall

Basel-City’s late mediaeval rathaus (city hall), home to the cantonal legislature which also serves (with the exception of a handful of members) as city council. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the chamber, as the tour clashed with our visit of the Federal Assembly in Bern.
Secondly, Bern’s legislature, the Grosser Rat/Grand Conseil. As far as we could tell there were no regular tours; we were let in by the janitor.

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The Bernese legislature, the Grand Council

Switzerland generally has relatively large legislative chambers. Basel-City, with a population of just under 200,000, has 100 seats, almost double what it should have per cube root; Bern, with a population of  just over a million, has 160, 60% over cube root. The Confederation as a whole is just right with 200 in the lower house for a population of 8.3 million.

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The Federal Assembly’s National Council 

The federal legislature is spectacular. The picture here is of the lower house, the National Council. The upper house, the Council of States, was more difficult to get a good photo of so here’s a link; the wall painting is of a traditional ‘landsgemeinde’ or popular assembly that used to be common in rural areas. Today the practice persists as the form of government of two cantons, where the citizens meet once a year, while the agenda for that meeting, and most details of legislation, are prepared by an elected assembly. One of the members of the Council of States is still elected by their canton’s popular assembly every four years.

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Poster with the candidates of the Socialist/Social-Democratic (depending on whether you translate from French or German) Party in the executive by-election of February 28th (and ultimately also April 3rd for the second round)

Lastly, in Bern, we saw a poster for another campaign – we weren’t sure when we saw it, but it turned out to be for a by-election over two positions in the cantonal executive. Unlike the federal government, the cantonal executive councils are directly elected, mostly (as in Bern) through a two-round system, though proportionally in some cantons. The unusual thing in Bern is that there is one seat reserved for the French-speaking minority of the Bernese Jura – and this seat was one of the two up in the by-election. But, even more interestingly, it turns out this seat is not just reserved to candidates from that region, but the winner is the candidate with the higher geometric mean between the vote total in Bernese Jura and the canton as a whole – a fascinating and likely unique arrangement!

 

 

Brexit vs. BC-STV: Help with my principles!

As I noted earlier, I happened to be in British Columbia while the British were voting to leave the EU.

[Note: If you want to make general comments on Brexit and what happens next, please comment at the earlier thread. I’d like to keep this one on the narrower topic raised here.]

I never liked the BC-STV vote having been “defeated” in 2005 despite a clear majority (57%), due to a threshold of 60% having been set. But I do not like the UK “mandate” to leave the EU by a vote of 51.9%.

Is there a principle that reconciles my two positions? Or do I just have no principles regarding referendums*, and assess the rules for passage by whether I like what is being proposed? Help, please!

(I have written about referendum approval thresholds before.)

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* Other than that, in general, I’d rather not have them. I rather like representative democracy and deliberative institutions.