Electoral reform and legislative behavior

Electoral reform and legislative behavior

The issue of electoral reform, forgotten since the announcement of the “democratization package” in September last year, has become a subject of the political agenda again. With alternatives discussed at the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as we learn from government ministers, to be enacted before the deadline for the next general elections, there is less pretense today that reform is about democratization.

Although reducing or abolishing the 10 percent threshold, which is indeed higher than democratic standards, would enhance proportional representation in Parliament, proposed reforms may not be the best alternatives to do so: single-member constituency system, one of the alternatives considered by the AKP, is known to yield highly disproportional distributions of parliamentary seats.  

Electoral reforms are rather political or downright partisan matters, not only in Turkey, but elsewhere as well. Any change in the rules of competition for parliamentary seats has a potential to create new winners and losers. In this sense, it is understandable that the debate over the proposed reform has concentrated so far on partisan consequences in terms of gaining or losing seats in the next election.
Consequences of electoral reform, however, cannot be limited to such numbers, but are far reaching. One overlooked aspect of these consequences is legislative behavior. Once the seats are filled according to the new institutional design, parliamentarians may form new behavior patterns in doing their jobs, due to the new rules of electoral competition. Elections have a central role in political science in analyzing legislative behavior. It is these rules that allocate the parliamentary seat to the incumbents and these rules again that will decide if incumbents are going to keep their seats in the future. Therefore, political behavior is heavily depended on the electoral system.

Many aspects of legislative behavior that are widely thought to be personal or cultural are in fact consequences of electoral design. For example, it is a widely-voiced observation that Turkish parliamentarians have weak ties with their constituents; ordinary citizens see their member of Parliament (MP) only before the elections and never again until the next one. This is a typical behavioral pattern found in closed-list proportional systems, as applied in Turkey. The current system does not create enough incentives for MPs to devote their scarce resources to citizen-related activities. It encourages MPs to concentrate on their partisan, parliamentary, or governmental activities because their chances of re-election depend on their parties rather than on their electorates. In closed-list proportional systems, a good and safe position on the ballot is the chief determining factor for re-election of most of the MPs. And it is the political parties and their leadership who decide whom will get such positions.

Single-member constituencies, in contrast, create a different set of incentives and thus lead to unique behavioral patterns among parliamentarians. The district magnitude of one provides opportunities for relatively strong links between representatives and their constituency to develop. An electorate in Kadıköy, whose district is collaboratively represented by 30 MPs in the current electoral design, would have one representative in a single-member constituency system. Research conducted across electoral systems unsurprisingly show that distinctively higher proportion of electorates can name their representatives in single-member districts. For electorates and well as for their representatives, this makes it easier to answer the basic question of representation: who represents what by which means? When there is only one representative for a given district, the links of delegation and accountability become clearer.

If electorates can name and monitor their representatives better, there is also the possibility of shaming them in the next elections. Unlike in the current system, a place on the ballot does not guarantee a parliamentary seat for any candidate. Local party branches are typically more influential in the candidate selection in single-member constituencies although party leadership still have the last word. However, voters can punish an incumbent, albeit at a high cost of punishing their party at the same time. As a result, MPs from single-member districts prioritize constituency services higher than their colleagues do from multi-member districts. There are evidently more contacts between MPs and their constituents in single-member districts.

Legislative behavior is one of the several areas where electoral reforms have consequences. A time frame of two months before the summer recess might prove too tight for all these consequences to be carefully considered or widely deliberated. Without these processes of open discussion, it would be even harder to define an electoral reform as a measure of democratization.

Resul Ümit is PhD Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna.