The coalition to end all coalitions

The coalition to end all coalitions

Turks like to vote. They have tasted the freedom of a ballot booth, a place where you face yourself, and make a decision about your future. But we hate coalition governments. Anyone who was around here in the 1990s and before would tell you that the horse trading after elections is unbearable, and that it should be done away with if possible. How far are we willing to go to abolish that kind of uncertainty?

Turkey is going to the polls again this Sunday to find an answer to that question. Citizens will be voting on a hotly debated constitutional amendments package. If President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s package is accepted, Turkey needs to look for a coalition to end all coalitions every five years. Sounds like an oxymoron? Well, it is. Back in the 1970s, coalitions were established after elections. With this systemic change, coalitions will need to be established before elections. 

In the proposed system, there will be two simultaneously held elections every five years: one for the president and one for parliament. The president will have a mandate to form the government by directly appointing vice presidents and ministers. This government will not need a vote of confidence. Parliament will have the authority to legislate. So it is not going to be a U.S.-style presidency. Nor is it going to be like the French presidency, where there is a prime minister. It is more akin to the super presidency in Russia. Yet it would require establishing a coalition every five years. Why?

Let’s have a look at some electoral numbers. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) got 49.5 percent of the votes in the November 2015 elections. That was enough to form a strong government in our current parliamentary system. But it wouldn’t be enough in the new super-presidency system. You need more. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) got 11.9 percent of the total votes, so there is technically a possible coalition of 61.4 percent. This would put them well above the 50+ percent requirement for the president to be elected with the mandate to form a government. This is what today’s “yes” camp is about, mind you.

Some 61.4 percent to win the referendum, change the system, elect the president and form a government. 
Israel tried a system that has similarities to the one proposed in Turkey today. In 1992, the Knesset adopted a system of two simultaneous votes – one for the prime minister, who is the executive authority, and one for the members of Knesset. The prime minister was to form the government and go to the Knesset for a vote of confidence. The system was designed to make coalitions easier, but it made them harder. People split their votes, and opted for prime ministers and parliamentarians from different parties. Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as prime minister in this way in 1996, but even he and two prime ministers that came after him, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, couldn’t manage, and the country switched back to a parliamentary system in 2003. 

Expect vote splitting here, too. The public has a way of surprising those occupying seats of power for a long time. The new system in Turkey is to start with the simultaneous election of a president and a parliament in 2019. So just wait for the coalition negotiations starting right from April 17. “Yes” or “no,” Turkish politics is not about to be monopolized by a single party or movement. Things are up in the air again, and there will be plenty of splinter groups, kingmakers and spoilers in the months and years to come. The question people should be asking are these: Which of the political parties today are robust enough to make it through this process and which ones will end up on the dust heap of history? Is the MHP going to be the new veto player in Turkey’s democracy in the years to come? Is it going to be the first partner of the first ever coalition to end all coalitions? We will see.