Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Beware of Turkish Prime Ministers Bearing Gifts

In the middle of our routine, faux-panic over government shutdowns, debt ceiling limits, heightened polarization, and various other events that make Americans think their system is falling apart, allow me a diversion to a nation that faces similar problems for reals, with huge stakes...  What does this have to do with the invisible primary?  Nothing really, but I'm the macdaddy of this blog.  So if I want to write about parties and elections elsewhere in the world I will.

As many of you know,  I've more than a passing interest in Turkey.  I lived and worked there for four years in capacities varying from university professor, political consultant, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  My obvious familial connection to the nation (well, obvious to those who know me), runs far deeper; and my family's future there is highly dependent upon decisions made in Ankara.  The connection is deep enough that I honestly see my self keeling over Michael Corleone style (at the end of Godfather 3) as I'm gazing over the lush beauty of Kocahıdır in western Thrace.  Simply put, I care deeply about what goes on there, particularly on political issues that pertain to the Kurdish "problem" and the general liberalization of the political system.

My son Liam doing the çapulcu thing in Ankara, June 2013.
Parallel to the events of this summer's nation-wide protests that stemmed from PM Erdogan's plans to put yet another big assed mall in Istanbul's Taksim square (hallowed political ground for the Turkish left and some of the last open space in the Beyoğlu district), has been the decades long struggle for Kurdish cultural and political rights (by the way, these protests have not gone away, though domestic and international attention to them certainly has).

The AKP government has been trickling out reforms in a fractured, erratic, piecemeal fashion for some time now; always with an eye on capturing a piece of the Kurdish vote (which worked to a degree) yet not giving more than they need or get away with politically.  A couple of days ago they released yet another round of such reform proposals.  The center piece of this package is a proposal to re-work the most undemocratic aspect of the militarily imposed constitution of 1982 - the 10% electoral threshold.  10% is no accident.  Back in 1935 Ismet Inonu, acting as Kemal Ataturk's PM, wrote a report in which he recommended that no ethnic group be allowed to comprise more than 10% of a local population.  This was then used as a benchmark in the continuing "population exchanges" to Turkify the Kurds (as well as other "others") throughout the southeast and relocate many to the western parts of the nation.  Fast forward to 1982, when the military wished to impose barriers to virtually ensure that no Kurdish party could be consistently elected, a national threshold of 10% was chosen.  Was 10% a coincidence?  Possibly in the strict sense, but the long term goal of Turkish socialization has been realized to the degree that Kurdish identity has been weakened enough to be a primary political identity for about 7% of the population.

The present system is pretty straight forward, and apart from the threshold, quite fair.  At present there are 85 districts based mostly on municipal boundaries, with Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir divided into multiple districts.  District magnitudes vary from 1 to 30.  Seats are apportioned using the D'Hondt method of proportional representation.  For reasons made abundantly clear in the 2002 election, when over 50% of the population voted for a party that didn't enter the parliament, the two main parties dig this threshold.  The AKP turned a 34% take into a 66% share of seats in the TBMM.  The farcical opposition party, the CHP, magically transformed a 19% vote into 32% of the seats.  Since then, they have dogmatically supported the high threshold as they've both picked up far more seats than their electoral support has warranted in each succeeding election.  So it came as something of a surprise to me yesterday when a student asked me about the suggestion of lowering the threshold to 5%.  Let's be clear on this, Erdogan is no genius.  But what he lacks for in brains and sophistication, he makes up for in raw political instinct.  Surely he hadn't walked into such a blunder?

He hasn't.  True to his pattern of political reform for the benefit of himself, the devil here is in the details.  For starters, he didn't personally endorse the lower threshold, but merely stated it should be a point of parliamentary discussion.  Given the extreme personalization of the parties there, I can imagine how that discussion will conclude.  He immediately proposed two other possibilities: 1) Increasing the number of districts  to 110 districts of 5 each, and if I read this correctly (and how do I hope I am not) the party that takes the majority in the district takes all five seats.  2) Moving to 550 single member plurality districts.  To say this is a sharp break from what they have now is the understatement of the year.  Either option would represent a clear regression of the democratic process in Turkey.  Being an illiberal democracy, the only thing Turkey really has going for it is its electoral system, which is both fair and freely administered by a politically independent commission.  Take those democratic qualities away, and we'll see another precious layer of democracy stripped from the nation.

True to Erdogan's caginess, either of these monstrosities would serve both the aims of limited "reform" and his own political security.  The AKP will clearly dominate the political map in either scenario, and I don't even want to speculate on how strongly they'd gerrymander the districts to achieve this.  Either scheme would most likely result in a marginal increase in the number of MPs from the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) who has until now, "sneaked" under the threshold by running independent candidates (that have suffered from severe limitations of electoral efficiency as it requires tremendous coordination of write-in voting).  However it would come at a cost, they may well increase overall numbers by getting more candidates out east, but they'd undoubtedly lose their MPs from the urban centers in the west.  In the main, the BDP has been very cool to the proposal; just as they have in every round of reform coming from the man.

As for the other parties it is a mixed bag.  The CHP as the consistent number two party would probably be marginally effected.  But in the best of scenarios, the pathetic state of the party's leadership, rank-and-file, back benchers, local officials, members, and voters in the electorate dooms them to parliamentary ineptitude despite any marginal gains (or losses) they may see.  The neo-fascist MHP is screaming bloody murder at this proposal, which on a normal day I'd say is a good sign.  Not only are they troubled with any relaxation of state or citizenship identity drifting away from an ethnic or racial basis in some of the packages other points, they will be the big losers here electorally as they have very little chance of taking a majority in most constituencies however they may be drawn geographically.

The bottom line is this: beware of Turkish Prime Ministers bearing gifts, even if on face the reforms seems genuine.  The initially lofty and loudly trumpeted democratic ambitions of the AKP's first and second governments have been all but lost in the personal ambitions of their leader after he learned to consolidate power without their help.  What once looked like the foundation of a genuinely mass based political party (something that's never been seen in Turkey before) that included many liberal voices has collapsed into something quite narrower - just another neo-patrimonial party intent on doling out state largess to its patrons.  Seeing this, Tayyipbey needs to proceed with caution if he has any intention of staying in the political game much longer.  There are limits to how much this kind of institutional monkeying can benefit one's party, particularly when you live in an electoral democracy as volatile as we have in Turkey.  In the past couple elections, the Turkish electorate has very consciously made a tradeoff between the political stability and economic benefits that have come with AKP single party government, and the deviation from long standing norms of the Turkish Republic (see Ali Carkoglu's work on economic retrospective voting in Turkey).  Voters knowingly departed from their own policy preferences in favor of good economic conditions and calm political times, while tolerating much of what the AKP has stood for socially.  Their tolerance will only go so far and they may well renege on that bargain should the hubris of Erdogan take him much farther down the road of blatantly stacking the institutional deck in his favor.  His barbarous response to the mass demonstrations this summer has undoubtedly hurt him.  True enough, he has the luxury of a ridiculous main opposition party in the CHP that makes things easier, but there's always the possibility that the political power demonstrated this summer could be channeled through either an existing party or something new that could upset the political calculus that Erdogan has been banking on.  I'd like to think that his winter is coming, but only time will tell.

You can try to delay it with institutional trickery, but it's still coming...

all photos courtesy of Evren Çelik Wiltse

1 comment:

  1. You are, indeed, the macdaddy of this blog.
    Well played, Dave! I'm not sure I understood all of this, but then we already knew I was the weak blogging link.