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.