Reforming Turkish democracy

PM Erdoğan’s inflammatory policies point to the pitfalls of majoritarian style democracy in Turkey.  

Neophytos Loizides
4 June 2013

The anti-government protests last weekend demonstrate that a move to a more consensus model of government is needed to avoid conflict in the country.

In majoritarian democracies decisions are determined by a simple majority/plurality of voters while in consensus democracies by ‘as many people as possible’. Both options claim to foster moderation and effective decision-making either by privileging single-governing parties as in Turkey or by encouraging wider consensus and cohabitation in government of competing political forces as post-election coalition partners.  

Until recently, Turkey and AKP’s single party government have been a promising case of majoritarianism. Erdoğan’s government has achieved a remarkable level of economic and political stability particularly in comparison to other nations in its immediate neighbourhood. Turkey’s majoritarian political system excluded from parliament any party with less than ten per cent of the national vote but also minimised the party fragmentation of the 1990s. More importantly, it controlled the role of the military in civilian affairs leading to an attempt to further consolidate majoritarianism through the introduction of a presidential system with increased powers to be assigned to a directly elected leader.

But majoritarian political systems frequently leave important social and political groups excluded or underrepresented. Once a sufficient plurality offers the leader a mandate, responsiveness (not inclusivity) becomes the priority.  Lack of consultation could lead to a dismissive style of government with rulers gradually losing their mandate in the public eye. Citizens cannot wait for elections, if a leader’s actions get out of control or violate social norms as to how to respond to dissent. Even more worrisomely, minority views can be permanently excluded from decision-making leading to further polarisation and conflict. Thus ‘Erdogan’s problem’ is not simply a personal one but primarily one of political institutions.

On the contrary, consensus democracies have been shown to be better in managing social and ethnic tensions but also in sustaining effective fiscal policies in times of a global financial crisis. The challenge for democratic reform is to incentivise wider consensus, primarily by lifting the ten per cent threshold in parliament enabling wider representation within the political system. Turkey’s weak coalition experience of the 1990s should not overrule this possibility, if the public opts for representation through new political forces.

Coalition governments have governed effectively most countries in continental Europe since WWII despite major differences among ethnic, religious and social groups. Even in debt-ridden countries, new multi-party coalition governments have emerged steering countries such as Ireland, Latvia and even Greece away from the Eurozone crisis.

And in Turkey, lifting the ten per cent threshold and moving closer to a consensus democracy could convert the Kurdish vote and other minority groups into equal players within the country's political system. This would be great news for the country’s democratic pluralism transforming the country's nationalist-minded political culture. But is this a gamble Erdoğan’s main challengers are willing to take? If not, they should be ready to live in Erdoğan’s Turkey in the long term. 


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