Stability and fair representation in Turkey

As shown in the last three parliamentary elections in Turkey, the proportional representation system in the elections with a 10 percent national threshold has produced two extreme results that warrant close examination for future stability in the country.

In the November 2002 elections, only two parties were able to pass the threshold: With 34 percent of the votes cast, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) won 363 seats, while the Republican People’s Party (CHP) picked up 178 seats with 19 percent of the vote. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) party scored only 6 percent despite having made an alliance with two other left-wing parties. Therefore, with only 45 percent of the electorate represented in Parliament, we had the least representative body since 1946, the year Turkey introduced the multi-party system.

In the July 2007 elections, five parties managed to get into Parliament, three by passing the national barrier of 10 percent and the other two by circumventing the threshold by running on an independent ticket or making an alliance with a bigger party. The AK Party won 341 seats with 47 percent of the votes cast, while the CHP picked up 112 seats with 20 percent and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 71 seats with 13 percent. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) was able to secure 22 seats on independent tickets with 2 percent of the vote. Democratic Left Party (DSP) candidates ran on the ticket of its main rival, the CHP, and 13 deputies later resigned from the CHP following the elections. Hence, the representation of the electorate rose to 85 percent in Parliament.

In the last elections held on June 12, the AK Party won 326 seats with 50 percent of votes cast, and the CHP won 135 seats with 26 percent. The MHP secured 54 seats by scoring 13 percent of the vote, while pro-Kurdish independents picked up 36 seats with 6 percent of the vote. The poor showing of smaller parties has produced the most representative Parliament we have seen so far. About 95 percent of the electorate is represented in the new Parliament.

Surprisingly, in each election cycle, the ruling AK Party has lost seats in Parliament despite the fact that it was able to increase the number of votes it received as well as the overall percentage of votes. As in most European countries, Turkey has a proportional representation system that utilizes the D’Hondt method to reflect the various political groups more closely in Parliament. Since one of the major disadvantages of proportional representation is that it tends to lead to fragmentation among those seeking electoral support, making it more difficult to establish stable governments, Turkey introduced a national threshold in 1983. This led to stable governments throughout the ’80s and ’90s with three single-party governments and three coalitional governments.

The June 12 elections highlighted the alarming risk that the conflict between fair representation and political stability may have reached a peak. We may not see a single-party government in the next elections and may very well experience fractured coalitions. In the last elections, the 10 percent threshold became effectively meaningless. Even if the barrier was dropped to 3 percent, the composition of the current Parliament would have not changed because only four parties made a strong showing, while all the others remained below 3 percent of votes cast nationwide.

What is more, the distribution of seats among the provinces was manifestly more favorable to the smaller provinces. In other words, pro-Kurdish candidates, most running in smaller provinces, were better positioned to make it to Parliament than others. For example, to be elected in the Istanbul first district, a candidate had to obtain about four times as many votes as a candidate had to receive in the predominantly Kurdish Hakkari province in the Southeast.

There is good reason to be concerned. Turkish political history shows that Turks do not do well in coalition governments. The fractured governments during highly polarized Parliaments cost this nation with political instability and economic crisis in the past. Though we need to cherish political pluralism and fair representation of all parties in Parliament, that goal should not be pursued at the expense of stability. This country has been able to make progress only during single-party governments, which have been shown to be much more effective and efficient. Therefore, we have to make some adjustments to the election system in Turkey in order to not fall into a vicious cycle of fractured governments again. That is not to say that the AK Party should govern forever, but rather whatever party comes in first in an election needs to have a comfortable lead to form a strong government.

Those who are old enough to remember what happened in the 1970s in Turkey would convincingly argue that Turkey had suffered tremendously under weak governments. In the elections of 1973 and 1977 the main political movements were unable to establish stable governments even though they had wide electoral support. The coalition governments, formed one after another in short cycles, were made fragile by the disproportionate influence of small parties on government policy. The younger Turks still remember the 1990s during which fractured political parties could not sustain coalition governments very long, delivering the notorious home-grown 2001 economic crisis.

Thanks to stable single-party government in Turkey in the last decade, we have become the world’s 16th largest economy, fast approaching a trillion dollar economy. Inflation dropped from high double digits to a low 4 percent, the central budget posted a surplus and unemployment receded to single digits. The public debt was reduced dramatically, and the government did away with International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending. Major improvements in transportation, health and education have really transformed the country. On the political side, the army’s role was reduced, and civilian supremacy was asserted with increased transparency, the supremacy of the rule of law and an improved record for fundamental human rights. The judiciary and the legal system were partially reformed as well. There is still much to do.

Therefore, we need stable single-party governments for some time to come to continue making these improvements. The last election results showed the danger that even if a party wins a little over 40 percent of the vote in the next election, it may very well fall short of the 276 seats it needs to establish a government. If and when that happens, we would have to sacrifice political stability to a fair representation of voters. This is a major challenge for Turkey.

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