The Indian moment in Turkish democracy
This Sunday, voting stations across Turkey will set up two ballot boxes: One to choose the president, the chief of the executive, and another to choose parliamentarians who make up the legislature. Under the new system, a president does not need parliament to form his government, as parliament does not need the president to legislate.
A highly likely scenario to come out of this vote is for the president to be elected in the second round and to not have a majority in parliament. Twin elections will usher in a new era of coalition politics. I see this as the “Indian moment of Turkish democracy.” Let me explain.
India did not have a single-party majority government since 1989. Because Indians could split their votes, all sorts of ethnic, regional and religious parties flourished. Horse-trading has become the trademark of Indian democracy. We will see more and more horse-trading in Ankara after elections this Sunday, all thanks to the electoral system that Erdoğan himself implemented. Is that bad? Not necessarily.
Unintended though it may be, pre-election coalition building is part and parcel of the new electoral system. There are three features here that need to be taken into account. First, the new electoral system requires the president to be elected by 50-percent-plus-1 of the total votes. Second, if no one qualifies in the first round, the two top contenders enter into a second round. Third, the new election alliance law effectively abolishes the minimum threshold of 10 percent for smaller but well-established parties in parliamentary elections. What’s good for small and smart parties is bad for large ones. Today there are four political parties in Turkey’s parliament. It is highly likely that by Monday there will be seven. It will therefore be the dawn of a new era of coalition building, king making, and good old parliamentary squabbles.
This is not going to make anything more certain in terms of policy choices. There are fewer ministerial posts to fill, which means more competition for the remaining seats. Yet the twin elections this Sunday should be considered a great step forward for Turkish democracy - and a step towards normalization.
I keep coming back to the Ludwig Wittgenstein quote: “You cannot draw the seed up out of the earth. All you can do is give it warmth and moisture and light; then it must grow.” Countries change by interaction, not by design. That is what is happening in Turkey.
You may wonder why I seem so relaxed. I think the people know what they are doing. In 2012 I was part of a country-wide tour of town hall meetings, and I remember one instance when I was speaking to an octogenarian. He said he wanted to elect the president by a direct vote, and insisted on having a strong prime minister, also elected by the people directly. “Why?” I asked, “isn’t that a sure way for more political instability in the country?” He smiled and said: “It is good for the ballot box to come to us one more time. Elections are the only way we communicate with politicians.” It took me off guard. “Why elect both the president and the prime minister directly?” I asked. He smiled again: “It’s always good to have not just one, but two strong men to rule the country. Let them try to control each other.” It was a brief and elegant lesson in checks and balances.
Erdoğan might now be having second thoughts about the new system, but it’s too late. You make the bed you lie in. The Indian moment in Turkish democracy has begun, and it is going to shake things up!