By Tamar Friedman*
“In essence, the [June] 2015 election was not only a high stakes gamble for the Kurds, it was also a referendum on Erdoğan himself and his ability to affect the structure of the Turkish electoral system.”
Nearly a year later, on May 5th of 2016, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was pressured by strongman Erdoğan to resign from his position, and on May 22nd the seemingly more pliable Binali Yildirim was elected in his place as the leader of the AKP and new prime minister of Turkey.
Meanwhile, on May 20th, Turkey’s parliament voted in favor of a law that will lift the legislative immunity of 138 parliamentarians, allowing them to be prosecuted for outstanding offenses, whereas before they were protected. While the parliamentarians who will now be subject to prosecution are not all from one party, the law is clearly meant to target members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose two co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, both face potential prosecution.
The international community is not blind to the connection between these two developments or to the concerning tendencies of the man pulling the strings behind them both: Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.
For some time now, it has been apparent that Erdoğan has harbored aspirations to increase the executive power of the president in Turkey. Yet, in response to the obstacles he has encountered in his quest to formally—that is, constitutionally—change Turkey’s government structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan’s tactics have become increasingly varied and unconventional.
Until he is able to obtain the political capital to overhaul the parliamentary system completely, Erdoğan has busied himself by slowly chipping away at it from within by increasing his own de facto power, ignoring rules meant to ensure a separation of powers, and manipulating the political landscape to set the stage for a constitutional referendum.
Erodgan’s plan for the June 2015 elections was for the AKP (the party which he had formerly led and of which he is still the unofficial leader, despite the fact that the Turkish president is, by law, not allowed to be affiliated with any political party) to win enough seats in the parliament to constitutionally transform Turkey into a presidential system. In terms of numbers, this means that he was hoping for the AKP to win 367 out of 500 parliamentary seats to unilaterally pass the measure. Or, in a more likely scenario, he hoped to garner the support of 330 out of the 500 parliamentary votes in favor of changing the constitution in order to send the measure to the Turkish people in a public referendum.
Yet last summer Erdoğan fell well short of his goal in large part due to an aspect unique to Turkey’s electoral system: the country’s extremely high electoral threshold.
At 10%, Turkey’s electoral threshold is the highest in the world, meaning that a party must win a minimum of 10% of the total vote in order to earn any seats in the parliament. In most countries with a threshold, that number is closer to 5%. This excludes smaller-sized parties from participating in the parliament while over-representing larger parties.
In the June 2015 election, Kurdish candidates who had previously run as independent candidates out of fear of not reaching the 10% threshold should they have run as a party, decided to run for the first time as the HDP. The Kurds won 13.1% of the vote, securing 80 seats in parliament, while the AKP only managed to win 258 seats.
A snap election was held in November of 2015 after a summer of violent clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists as well as coalition talks that failed to lead to the formation of a functional government. The November election led to results more favorable for Erdoğan, but still not sufficient for amending the constitution. The AKP won 317 seats (still short of the 330 needed for a public referendum), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 134 seats and 40 seats respectively, and the Kurdish HDP won 59 seats after just surpassing the electoral threshold with 10.7% of the vote.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s newest pawn, has not been subtle about his intentions in the position. Just after he assumed office, he gave a speech in which he stated:
“The most important mission we have today is to legalize the de facto situation, to bring to an end this confusion by changing the constitution…The new constitution will be on an executive presidential system.”
It is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey has a parliamentary system on paper but has become a presidential state in practice. Turkey is not the only country masquerading as something that it is not. Brazil has a presidential system that, because of the high number of operational parties, acts as a de facto parliamentary system. As Brazil experiences its own political controversies, this has raised some interesting questions about how to oust an unpopular leader within this convoluted political system.
The biggest problem with Turkey is that its de facto presidential system seems to be teetering on the edge of authoritarianism and nobody is sure quite how far Erdoğan will go in his quest for power.
There is no doubt that a referendum and constitutional change is the strongest and longest-lasting method for changing the Turkish system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. This still seems to be Erdoğan’s goal, yet the developments of the past month show that there are other political tools that Erdoğan is using to slowly change the way the Turkish government operates and, more troublingly, to concentrate his own political power.
Last June I thought the success of the HDP had quelled Erdoğan’s presidential aspirations, at least in the short-term; today, I feel there is little that will stop him.
About the author:
*Tamar Friedman is a Junior Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East. She is currently working as the Marketing Associate at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Tamar is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her B.A. in Political Science, with a minor in Modern Middle Eastern Studies.
This article was published at FPRI.