The stakes of electoral reform

Turkish voters will elect the president of the republic for the first time on Aug. 10. Who the candidate for the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be is certainly a hot question. Day after day, signals emanating from the AKP show that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be their candidate. If Erdogan is elected, he will have to content himself with the existing privileges of the president. Although these privileges are quite great — such as the president being permitted to lead government meetings — the political system remains a parliamentary one, giving the real executive power to the prime minister.

I believe this political setup will not be acceptable for Erdogan, who would like to govern Turkey from Cankaya as he governed it as prime minister. Admittedly, Erdogan will be able to find a docile prime minister once he becomes president, and thus will continue to monopolize executive power de facto. Nevertheless, in the general elections to be held at the latest in June 2015, a new AKP leader will lead the party in the electoral campaign and most likely will become prime minister given the current vote distribution. Whoever this person might be, he will be very reluctant to share executive power with Erdogan, especially since the Constitution will hold him responsible for making political decisions while the president will not be responsible for the same.

It is clear that if Erdogan decides to become president, he needs to change the parliamentary system into a presidential one. Now, this switch will require a new Constitution; for that, the AKP first needs to win more than 330 seats in the next general elections, the number of seats required to bring about a referendum.

In other words, the AKP will only be able to introduce a presidential system if it is able to present its own Constitution in a referendum. Here comes into the picture the stakes of the electoral reform.

Within the existing electoral system, the AKP can never obtain this majority. In June 2011, it got 326 seats with 50 percent of the vote. With a vote share below 44 percent, as was the case in the March 30 municipal elections, the AKP will be far from obtaining the referendum majority. Thus, it needs to change the electoral rules. More than a year ago Erdogan proposed two alternative electoral systems, toward which the AKP is currently working. The first one would bring the current electoral threshold below 10 percent. The current 10 percent threshold is preventing the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) from participating in general elections as a united party and thus requiring it to run with independent candidates.

The AKP aims to lower the threshold to 5 percent and also aims to lower the number of legislators that represent each district. The second alternative would present a radical change in the electoral system, as it would transform it into a “first-past-the-post” system. There will be 550 seats for 550 constituencies and the first party with the highest number of votes will take the seat in the first round regardless of its vote share. With this strategy, the AKP is offering to cancel the electoral threshold.

These two alternatives have very different political implications in the Turkish context. The system with a threshold of 5 percent may allow the BDP to present party candidates and to win about 35 seats, since its vote share is currently over 6.5 percent, and to profit from state subsidies for the first time. The AKP would be able to win about 20 more seats than it has now in the current electoral system. However, the problem is that with a vote share of around 44 percent, the AKP will be still unable to obtain the number of seats required to bring about a referendum. Guaranteeing this majority requires a vote share of more than 46 percent. The AKP may strive to win back part of its constituency, but it would be a very risky bet.

On the other hand, the first-past-the-post system would guarantee the referendum majority to the AKP even with a lower vote share since this party is the ranked highest by a wide margin — the second-ranked Republican People’s Party (CHP) won only 26 percent on March 30 — and because its electorate has a balanced distribution across the country.

However, a first-past-the-post system would also result in a major political problem. The BDP would win a high concentration of its votes from the southeast and the east and get the majority of seats there, probably more than 40, while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), historically representative of nationalist Turks, would barely get 30-35 seats despite the fact that its vote share will be more than double the BDP’s. Indeed, the MHP won about 18 percent of the vote in the March 30 elections.

This outcome contradicts the principle of fair representation and adapting to it will be hard for the Turkish political system.

Will the AKP dare to opt for this system given the existing political tension in order to institute a presidential system? Let’s see.