By, Robert Buderi
In an unprecedented turn of events, in June 2015 the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) became the first pro-Kurdish political party to gain representation in the Turkish Parliament. Despite a long history of Kurdish-Turkish animosity, the Turkish electorate played a vital role in the HDP’s success, with ethnically Turkish liberal, LGBT, feminist, and others voting for the HDP in record numbers.This year’s election was also remarkable, from an American perspective, for its turnout. Around 86% of registered voters showed up at the polls, which can be compared to record low turnouts in America for the midterm elections with less than half of eligible voters participating in 43 states. Turkish voter participation is all the more remarkable given that there were violent attacks (some fatal) at rallies and polling stations. Additionally, voters elected a record number of women to the legislature in Turkish history. Ninety-six (17%) of the 550 Turkish MPs are now women -- which is up from 79 (14%) in 2011 and almost equal with the United States Congress (19%).
The 2015 Turkish election is also interesting for the unusually fair operation of its high threshold for election, which typically hinders the proportionality of its proportional representation system by preventing the election of smaller parties and over-representing larger parties. This year, proportional representation was true to its name
A Response to Erdogan
The 2015 election for the “Grand House” (the national legislature) was generally viewed as a referendum on the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought to vastly expand presidential powers and, in the views of many opposition voices, moved the Turkish presidency from its traditionally nonpartisan and weak character dangerously close to authoritarianism.
In the election, the President did not fare as well as he had hoped. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) did win more seats than any other party, however it lost its previous majority--and fell well short of gaining the supermajority Erodgan yearned for so that he could make constitutional changes to his presidential powers without a referendum.
The AKP’s share of the vote declined from around 50% in 2011 (the last general election) to 41% in 2015, and the party now finds itself in need of a coalition partner. Potential partners include the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which received about 25% of the vote, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which came in at 16%, and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) at 13%.
The Turkish Electoral System
Turkey is divided into 85 districts, but instead of each district having one representative, each district elects between three and 31 legislators. To choose members, Turkey uses a closed list proportional representation system in which constituents cast their votes for political parties (rather than candidates). In a five-seat district, if a political party wins 40% of the vote, it gets to seat two candidates from its list; if a party wins 51% they would get to seat three. The number of seats of seats won roughly corresponds to the proportion of voters received.
The proportionality of Turkish election results is limited by a high national threshold that a party must reach before it can win any seats anywhere in the nation. Thresholds themselves are not controversial: in many list-proportional systems, including Israel, Germany and Sweden, a party must reach a nationwide threshold before it can win seats. However, in Turkey, that threshold is set high: 10% of the national vote. That means no matter how popular a party is in a particular district, if it does not receive 10% of total national votes, it cannot win any seats. Instead, the seats it would have won are “lost” and reallocated to the larger parties.
Independent candidates are exempt from this threshold, which means that some politicians quit their party, run as an independent, and re-join after being elected. For example, the Peace and Development Party in 2011 ran its candidates as independents and managed to secure 36 seats -- even though it only won 6% of the national vote collectively.
A High Barrier to Election: Ten Percent
While national thresholds are common for systems of proportional representation, most around the world set the bar at 5% or under (for example: Israel 3.25%, Germany 5%, New Zealand 5%, and Sweden 4%). In Turkey, like other countries, the main idea of this threshold is to prevent extreme or radical parties from gaining national seats when they might only have support in a very small region of the country. However, with such a high percentage nationwide required in Turkey, the threshold places serious barriers on the representation of small or locally based parties, which struggle to get enough votes nationwide to be awarded seats won in a district. This has, until 2015, proved a struggle for the Kurdish minority in particular.
What do Ralph Nader and small Turkish political parties have in common? Like third parties in winner-take-all systems, small parties in a proportional representation (PR) system with a high threshold can act as spoilers; splitting the vote between parties with similar ideologies or from the same ethnic minority, thus reducing the number of seats won by those voters. As a consequence, high thresholds in PR systems encourage strategic voting: a voter might not vote their conscience if they suspect their vote might not count for anything if their first choice does not reach the national threshold. This can be likened to the famous US presidential election in 2000, when many people criticized Ralph Nader for running for president on the ground most of his votes “took away” votes from Al Gore (who was ideologically more similar to him) and paved the way for George W. Bush’s narrow victory.
A high threshold in a PR system also allows for many votes to be wasted and for larger parties to win a number of seats disproportionate to their share of the votes. While in this year’s Turkish grand elections only 3.7% of the votes were ‘lost’, in past elections it has been much worse. Most notably in 2002, 46.3% of all votes cast were wasted, going to parties that made the 10% national threshold. Consequently, the two largest parties gained a larger proportion of seats than their vote share would suggest. In 2002, the AKP received 34.2% of the vote, but won 66.4%(363) of the 550 parliamentary seats. The only other party to reach the 10% national threshold and receive seats was the Republican People's Party with 19.4% of the vote and 32.4%(178) of seats, with the remaining 9 seats being awarded to independents.
Not an optimal form of PR, but still better than winner-take-all plurality
While a PR system with an unusually high threshold is associated with disproportionality, wasted votes, the spoiler effect and strategic voting, winner-take-all plurality elections are prone by these same problems, but to a much more severe degree. In the recent 2015 British election, winner-take-all plurality delivered a majority of parliamentary seats to one party (the Conservative Party) that received just 36.8% of the vote -- a highly disproportionate result. A party (the UK Independence Party, UKIP) that received 12.6% of the national vote won only one seat (0.15% of the 650 seats) in the legislature. Half of all votes were wasted -- and were not used to elect a candidate. The spoiler effect was rife -- less than half of members were elected by a majority in their district, and three in ten members were elected with less than 30% of the vote in their district. What’s more, the problems of the spoiler effect, strategic voting, wasted votes and disproportionality are not innate in a proportional system -- they can be easily mitigated or eliminated by reducing the threshold -- whereas the same problems are inherent in any competitive winner-take-all plurality system.