Sunday, 6 September 2015

Can Turkey survive another election?

By Elizabeth L. Young

On August 24th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced snap elections to be held on November 1st for the Grand National Assembly, Turkey’s legislative body. The elections follow the failure to form a coalition government from the four parties that won seats in the June 7th legislative elections.

While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) finished first in the polls, receiving 40.9% of the vote, it only secured 258 seats out of 550, a decline of 69 seats from the 2011 election. This is the first time the party has lost a parliamentary majority since coming to power in 2002, and the first time that it had to negotiate a coalition among its highly polarized potential government partners. When AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu failed to establish a coalition with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the runner-up in the elections with 25% of the vote and 132 seats, Erdoğan called for early elections rather than invite another party to attempt to form a government. November elections offer an opportunity for the AKP to potentially gain enough seats to obtain an outright majority and the CHP reports that early elections, rather than a stable coalition government, were always the AKP’s goal throughout negations. While snap elections are relatively common strategies to resolve parliamentary deadlock between electoral cycles, it is rare that elections are called as a result of failed coalition talks before the parliamentary body has even met (Greece in 2012 being another example).

The elections come at a particularly critical moment in Turkish politics as Turkey weighs significant structural changes to its political system. In 2014, Turkey held its first popular presidential election after a constitutional reform shifted this authority away from the Grand National Assembly. Furthermore, the Erdoğan has proposed additional constitutional amendments to create what he dubs a “New Turkey”, which would be a presidential rather than a parliamentary system. While Erdoğan, is required to be non-partisan in his role is President, he is widely seen as actively backing the AKP, which he helped found and led up to his election as President last year, and furthering his own political ambitions. At the same time, Turkey faces continued violence in neighboring Syria and renewed violence in the southeast Kurdish regions, which some commenters suggest will be used strategically by the AKP to increase their support in November.

These concerns of growing executive power, present a democratic retrenchment from the early 2000s when Turkey actively campaigned for EU accession and was seen as a model for democratic governance in a region marked by authoritarian dictatorships. Given the current political situation, can Turkish democracy survive a “do-over” election, both with respect to its institutions and to overall voter confidence?

Current public opinion polling shows Turks roughly split in their views on the AKP government’s performance to-date. In the most recent Eurobarometer survey, conducted just prior to the legislative election, 49% of Turkish respondents answered that they “tend to trust” the government with 44% respondents tending “not to trust” it. The Grand National Assembly fares slightly better with 54% and 39% trusting and not trusting it respectively (1). The next survey wave, to be conducted around the November election, will give a better picture of how much the early elections have impacted voter confidence.

However, we do know that Turkey faces substantial existing issues with the electoral process that serve to undermine the overall integrity of the electoral system. The Electoral Integrity Project, a joint Harvard University and University of Sydney Research Project, has released new data on the Turkish parliamentary elections in the Perception of Electoral Integrity, which surveys electoral experts on key indicators in 11-stages of the electoral process. In the most recent PEI 3.5 data, Turkey ranks 84th of the 125 countries currently covered, the lowest of all OECD countries (behind Hungary at 62 and Mexico at 54). Additionally, Turkey, despite its previous regional reputation, does not stand out among other Middle East and North African countries that have held elections since the PEI started monitoring elections in mid-2012, falling behind both Kuwait and Iran.

The June legislative elections scored particularly low in three key areas of the electoral process: electoral laws, campaign finance, and campaign media, all of which support the assessment that Turkey is on the path towards increased authoritarian tendencies.

Electoral Laws (21.97 / 100): Of the eleven dimensions of electoral integrity measured by the PEI, the legislative elections ranked the lowest with respect to integrity in electoral laws, 21.97. To put this in perspective, of the 153 discrete elections evaluated in the PEI, only ten elections have scored lower in this category (2).

In particular, Turkish electoral experts strongly agreed that electoral laws are unfair to small parties (4.91 on a 1-5 scale where 5 indicates strong agreement) and agreed that electoral laws favored the governing party (4.18). This evaluation comes as little surprise, given that Turkey has the highest, legislated electoral threshold in the world: political parties must obtain at least 10% of the vote to obtain a seat in parliament. Any parties that don’t clear this threshold are excluded from the parliament and the votes are considered “wasted votes”, which range anywhere from 3.71% of the total valid ballots cast as in the most recent election to a staggering 46.33% in the 2002 election.

As a result, the Grand National Assembly has been composed of a small number of parties compared to the total number of parties competing in the election. In the June election, twenty parties contested the election, with only four parties clearing the threshold, the highest number since 1999. One of these parties is the newly founded Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish, leftist party that won 13.12% of the vote and 80 seats. While the threshold, effective since 1983 elections is ostensibly to provide government stability, it is widely viewed as a means of excluding the Kurdish minority from parliament. Given the current violence in the Kurdish regions, the HDP could potentially fall below the 10% threshold in the November elections, which could shift the current parliamentary deadlock and potentially give the AKP a clear majority of seats.

Campaign Media (27.61 / 100): The campaign media environment also scores low among the PEI experts (27.61), with concerns over the impartiality of coverage. In particular, expert strongly agree (4.54) that TV news favored the governing party and disagree (1.45) that parties had fair access to political broadcasts and advertising. These concerns were also noted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in their election observation mission report, which highlighted media freedom as an area of “serious concern” as “media and journalists critical of the ruling party were subject to pressure and intimidation during the campaign” and state media was used in a partisan manner.

Campaign Finance (27.39 / 100): Overall PEI experts disagree that parties had equitable access to political donations (1.90), and strongly agree (4.82) that some state resources were improperly used for campaigning. Again, the OSCE reports notes that President Erdoğan attended numerous public events in an official capacity and used them as “opportunities to campaign in favour of the ruling party and to criticize opposition figures.” Additionally, state resources, such as state television, were used in violation of campaign finance rules.

As seen from the PEI data, Turkey already faces significant challenges in its perceived electoral integrity, particularly to the extent to which the ruling party is seen to be able to manipulate the elections to its favor through electoral laws, such as the threshold, pressure exerted on the media, and use of state resources for campaigns. While it is unlikely that any significant or legal changes will be made prior to the November elections, if citizens are to have any confidence in the outcome of this election and future elections, changes, either in the implementation of existing electoral laws or new ones, must be made.

(1) These levels are comparable to polling that occurred prior to the 2013 Gezi Park protests when distrust for the Parliament and government rose to 56 and 57% respectively.

(2) The countries with electoral laws perceived as lower than Turkey’s are: Turkmenistan (20.89), Bahrain (19.44), Djibouti (18.33), Tajikistan (16.25, 19.44), Malaysia (15.42), Belarus (13.69), Equatorial Guinea (13.33), Ethiopia (10.56), and Syria (9.38).

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