politics : culture : economics

The trouble with Turkey’s closed-list elections

In Electoral system, Turkey on October 17, 2010 at 11:04 am

There are problems at every stage of Turkey’s electoral process. As I highlighted in my most recent post, parliament’s 550 seats are badly misallocated among the country’s 81 provinces. Next, the processes used to translate individual votes into seats for parties are deeply skewed. The 10 per cent threshold that parties need to clear before they can enter parliament deservedly gets the most attention, but it’s not the only issue here. Once the threshold has been passed, the d’Hondt method is used to distribute seats among the remaining parties. Of the many variants of proportional representation, d’Hondt is the least proportional, systematically favouring larger parties.*

We reach a further set of problems when it comes to filling the seats that have been allocated to the various parties. Turkey uses a closed-list proportional representation system. This means that voters vote for the party of their choice, but there is no mechanism for them to express a preference for one or more of the party’s individual candidates. Instead, a list of candidates for each province is drawn up by the party leadership and any seats won in that province are automatically assigned to the names on the list, starting from the top.

It’s not the list per se that causes the problems here. List-based proportional representation is an extremely widely used electoral approach. But in most cases an open list is used, which allows voters to influence the rank-order of the names on the list, and therefore the order in which seats will be allocated to party candidates. Turkey’s closed-list variant is less common. It has tended to feature in countries where democracy is relatively novel and/or shallow. The reasons for this should be clear. Closed lists produce an authoritarianism-friendly form of democracy, keeping power and control in the hands of party elites rather than individual voters.

Consider some of the negative effects that flow from the use of closed lists. First, as noted above, voters have no way of influencing the identity of the person who will represent them. Accordingly, the link between citizen and representative is weak at best. Second, parliamentarians are particularly strongly incentivised to bend to the will of their party leadership rather than to act in the electorate’s interest. Third, the calibre of party candidates is likely to be weaker than it could be, because leaders are free to promote weaker candidates on their lists in an effort to prevent rivals from emerging. Fourth, voters are left with no easy way to hold an individual politician to account by voting them out of office.

This last point about accountability warrants some attention, because it relates very closely to one of the questions that will feature prominently in debates about Turkey’s proposed new constitution, namely parliamentary immunity. The argument in favour of lifting or narrowing the scope of parliamentarians’ immunity is a simple one, resting on the widespread belief, supported by abundant anecdotal evidence, that Turkish politics is rife with corruption which ought not to be beyond the reach of the criminal justice system. Nor is it only venality that gets sheltered; two of the most prominent beneficiaries of Turkey’s parliamentary immunity have been Mehmet Ağar and Sedat Bucak, of Susurluk notoriety. (For an overview of the Susurluk scandal, and of Turkish politics in the 1990s, see Jim Meyer‘s 1998 article Politics As Usual.)

The danger with proposals to lift or curtail parliamentary immunity is the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are valid reasons for providing a degree of immunity to democratically elected representatives. Chief among them is the protection of debate and decisions in parliament from interference by unelected authorities. As Simon Wigley notes in an article that teases out these issues at some length, this is of particular relevance in weak democracies like Turkey.** One way of looking at this is to ask whether the cause of Turkish democracy would be advanced if all the currently outstanding requests for immunity waivers—the latest count I’ve seen is 712—were to be converted into active court cases. It is at least arguable that the answer to that question is ‘no’. The point here is that while immunity can clearly be abused, so too can the absence of immunity.

Moving away from the closed-list system (whether to open lists or to any other electoral formula that allows voters to influence which candidates enter parliament) would have at least three advantages as far as these questions of corruption and immunity are concerned. First, it would give voters a degree of leverage (how much would depend on the specific system chosen) in terms of refusing to re-elect a representative. This seems clearly preferable to the current system, under which a representative’s chances of re-election depend largely on inclusion on a list that’s drawn up by a party leadership which is likely to be happy to turn a blind eye to their parliamentarians’ indiscretions.

Second, departing from closed lists would make the system of parliamentary immunity more responsive to voters’ preferences and less subject to politicians’ manoeuvrings. It would become more difficult for parliamentarians to delay prosecution by ‘topping up’ their immunity at successive elections simply by getting themselves onto their party’s closed list. Under a reformed system, if voters refused to vote in sufficient numbers to re-elect an individual, then immunity would lapse and prosecution could begin.

Third, granting this kind of increased ‘disciplinary’ power to voters would help to nudge parliamentarians’ incentives in a democratically positive direction. Under a closed-list system, the key consideration for a parliamentarian weighing up their re-election prospects is how effective they have been at ingratiating themselves with the party leadership. Under a more open system, the parliamentarian’s thoughts would also need to turn to voters’ likely preferences among the various candidates on offer. That shift in perspective would hardly be a panacea for political wrong-doing. But it wouldn’t necessarily be trivial.

The disadvantages of Turkey’s closed-list system don’t just relate to political wrong-doing. More open systems are, in short, more democratic. By giving voters a greater degree of control over the identity of their representatives, they make parliamentarians answerable to the electorate as well as to party superiors. These systems are therefore more likely, over time, to foster a political agenda that takes better account of voters’ needs and preferences and protects their basic rights with more vigour than Turkey has a history of displaying. They are also more conducive to the emergence of more able and independent-minded candidates, which, again over time, may help to improve the standard of policy-making, both within parties and in parliament.

To state the obvious, however, there is no chance that Turkey will reform its closed-list system in the foreseeable future. In the months ahead we will hear much lofty talk about the wonders of democracy and about the brave new world that a fully civilian constitution will usher in. And the electoral system will be firmly on the agenda in the shape of the 10 per cent threshold. But we’re a long way from the point at which any of the main parties might calculate that it’s time to open up the process of deciding who fills the seats they win at general elections. No doubt many positive changes will be mooted in the course of debates about a new constitution. Some will be accepted. But in many key areas normal political service will continue unaffected. And the parties won’t relinquish the control that closed lists give them over the electoral process.

Democracy they can live with. It’s the voters they’re still not sure about.


* Arend Lijphart, The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws

** Simon Wigley, Parliamentary Immunity in Democratizing Countries: The Case of Turkey

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  1. Thank you for this series of articles. There’s also the related issue about the allocation of funds from the treasury. Several things that I can see:

    – Those funds are under the control of the central administration and cause further relative weakening the local party organizations. (On the other hand, there seems to be another off-the-books mechanism involving municipalities. This probably shifts some of the power back to the local organizations of the bigger parties but does so in an undesirable way. The prize, I think, is Istanbul. Since ’89 and pretty much regardless of the percentage of the votes, Istanbul mayor’s party ended up in power alone or in coalitions. When SHP’s candidate lucked into that position, they ended up as coalition partner, but lost in short order. When RP lucked into it, the ascent of Erdogan began. Implementing a runoff system for mayoral races is resisted for reasons I don’t really know/understand.)

    – The allocation of the funds favor a few of the bigger parties. Here are the numbers for next year: http://www.sabah.com.tr/Gundem/2010/10/17/siyasi_partiler_kasasini_dolduracak I believe LDP has a lawsuit about this that’s progressing through various levels and they intend to take it to the ECHR: http://www.cnnturk.com/2008/turkiye/11/20/ldpnin.hazine.yardimiyla.ilgili.basvurusuna.ret/501470.0/index.html

    And a meta-comment. Note how almost none of the info you dug up is really known or talked about in the mainstream press or in the opinion columns (usually just the threshold is mentioned). Also worth noting is how, despite the loud lip-service paid to the desirability of some democratic control of the selection of constitutional court judges, we know next-to-nothing about the two new ones that have already been elected by the parliament.

  2. Very good synopsis. Could you add a link to share the article on FB too? This might help: http://mashable.com/2010/05/07/wordpress-facebook-like-buttons/

  3. Come to think of it, you should submit it to the Turkish papers. It’s more insightful than what their columnists write. Don’t let it gather dust here.

  4. [...] the electorate is particularly wide. I have suggested in a previous post that the country’s closed-list system of parliamentary elections has much to do with [...]

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