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September 27, 2012, Thursday

Electoral system reform

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will hold a critical party congress this Sunday. An important part of its managerial team will be renewed as the result of the “no mandate more than three times” rule.

This is the first time such a rule will be applied in Turkey and probably in the world. I am not sure of the accuracy of this rule, but anyway, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the uncontested leader of the governing party, does not want to retreat from his promise. I hope that Mr. Erdoğan will stand firm on other promises as well, and I come to my purpose.

One of the most important promises of the AK Party was political system reform. I am not talking here about the new constitution that is anyway out of the capacity of the AK Party alone, but about changing electoral and political parties' laws. These laws, inherited from the military era following the Sept. 12, 1980 coup, could have been easily changed since this requires a simple majority vote, but the AK Party preferred not to touch them.

Now, the good news is that the AK Party Chairman is getting ready to release in the Sunday congress a comprehensive package of reforms, including political system reforms. My personal interest goes towards electoral system reform because I have tried to promote a new electoral system in this country for more than 10 years. I prepared three reports for the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD) and wrote many articles for academic journals as well as newspapers analyzing the problems created by the current electoral system and suggesting some alternatives to it to minimize these problems. So did many other political scientists, but the crude truth is that we did not succeed at all. However, this time it seems that there is a very good chance of having a new electoral law.

Indeed, the Zaman daily gave the first news that Mr. Erdoğan will announce electoral system reform, among others, during the AK Party congress. According to Ahmet Dönmez (Zaman, Sept. 14), the 10 percent threshold will be canceled, electoral constituencies will be narrowed, and 100 deputies will be elected at the national level through a proportional system. For the moment this is probably just a proposal still under debate, but I think that we have enough to hope for. Moreover, what delights me in this information is that the proposal in question is quite similar to the electoral reform that I proposed.

In April 2010 in Görüş, the monthly review of TÜSİAD, I published an article (“Electoral system is awaiting reform”) that summarized my point of view concerning an alternative electoral system. I should note that my latest proposal is not my first choice, but kind of second best -- albeit politically feasible. This proposal is based on four principles: 1) Cancel the 10 percent threshold completely; 2) As the absence of a threshold would increase the risk of fractionalization and increase the risk of political instability, narrow the constituencies so that the largest ones would have a maximum of five to six seats; 3) Increase the number of seats in Parliament from 550 to 600 and elect 500 of them in narrowed constituencies through the current D'Hondt method and elect 100 of them in a national constituency though the proportional method; 4) As the new electoral system will be a mixed one, give two votes to each voter like in the German electoral system.

Can a new electoral system based on these principles minimize the main defaults of the current one? I see three main faults that have already caused a lot of damage to our democracy: 1) Unfair representation; 2) Political instability arising either through a legitimacy crisis or through a grand fractionalization of the party system; 3) Limitation of political plurality among Kurds.

It is obvious that the current electoral system with its dramatically high threshold is far from a fair representation. But at the same time fair representation requires very large constituencies with proportional voting. Such a system would unavoidably open the way to extreme fractionalization that would increase the risk of political instability at an unacceptable level. Personally, I prefer to give greater weight to stability than to fair representation. For this reason, if the national threshold is canceled, it is a must to narrow the constituencies in order to avoid fractionalization. In the new system unfair representation would be alleviated through the 100 seats elected at the national level through proportional voting; so, even a small party with 1 percent of the votes could get a seat.

Having said that, do not forget that the current electoral system can give the majority of seats to the first party with a very low minority vote. So, the absence of a threshold -- augmented by the 100 seats -- would give fair representation to a Kurdish party and would prevent the system producing legitimacy problems as was the case following the elections of November 2002, in which the AK Party got the majority with only 34 percent of the votes. On the other hand, the absence of a threshold is crucial for a plurality for the Kurdish political movement. Imagine that the threshold is lowered to 3-4 percent. This would give an absolute monopoly to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) through its legal political party over the Kurdish opposition, since another Kurdish opposition party can never hope to reach even this low national threshold. So, if you want to encourage plurality among Kurdish voters, forget the national threshold.

I do not know if the AK Party has finally decided to change the electoral system, but if so, I hope that it will be done in the right way.

Previous articles of the columnist