Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An election threshold too high for democracy

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One of the biggest obstacles to democratization in Turkey is the unusually high election threshold that has effectively caused millions of votes in the country to be wasted each election year. The 10-percent election threshold in Turkey, which is twice as high as the European average, has been criticized by a number of diplomats from the European Union. However, thus far, there have been no serious discussions in Turkey to address the issue. As a result of Turkey's popular ruling parties - currently, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) - benefiting from the threshold by squeezing out smaller parties, there has been little direct incentive to change it. However, the indirect and long-term effects of reducing the threshold to a more reasonable level should be obvious. Turkey, like any nation, stands to benefit from any effort towards democratization and a lower threshold could help resolve many of the political issues in the country that still stand, and especially one of the thorniest of them all: the Kurdish issue.

The extent of the unrepresented vote in Turkey due to the election threshold is enough to cause alarm. In the 2002 elections, approximately 45% of the votes in the elections were discounted because they were cast for parties that failed to pass the 10-percent national electoral threshold. In 2007, one party, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party or DTP, attempted to bypass the threshold requirement with some limited success. The DTP ran a list of candidates as independents and were able to gain about 20 seats in parliament after the elected independents regrouped under the DTP banner. Such a number is impressively high for DTP members that were at a great disadvantage to rival parties in the various districts they were elected from. Although the number of seats won by the DTP was significant, it was not enough for the party to effectively represent their constituents’ demands because of the 341 seats won by the AKP.

Elections are approaching again this year and the outcome may not be very different for smaller parties like the pro-Kurdish parties. Unfortunately, this roadblock is not only one that impedes the success of small parties, but also impedes the process of democratization in Turkey. One detriment to Turkey's progression is undoubtedly the unwavering support for an armed struggle in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. The ruling party, the AKP, has opened an unprecedented discussion about the Kurdish question in Turkey but its efforts to resolve the issue have fallen short. The ease by which the AKP is able to bypass the Kurdish question's most vocal actors in the DTP - or the DTP's successor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) - is rooted in the ruling party's near dominance of parliament.

The BDP's significance is underrated by the election outcome with the high threshold in place making the party only seem less representative of the large disgruntled segment of the Kurdish population. If the threshold were to decrease to the average level of European parliamentary systems, the BDP with an estimated 6 to 7% of the national electoral vote could get a much more significant number of seats in the country's parliament. This could cause a serious change in the political dynamics in Ankara by providing a balance to the Turkish nationalist right and fairly accommodate Turkey's diverse population. It would also benefit the country as a whole because the more radicalized Kurdish segment would see more hope in raising their issues via democracy rather than through accustomed means of armed resistance.

Election thresholds were first invented to prevent radical factions from attaining power in a political system. In Turkey, however, the election threshold has instead been contributing to radicalization by making it extremely difficult for large segments of Turkey's population from having a fair chance to participate in the country's political system. Feeling unrepresented and unable to become represented in Turkey, such segments turn to supporting civil unrest as the sole means to get their voices heard.

Proponents of democratization in Turkey should focus their efforts on decreasing the 10-percent threshold so that it only does its job to bar the marginal radicals from power, instead of stripping minorities from having a voice and an equal stake and share in Turkey. Turkey's system simply will not work in the long-run if the current election threshold stands. Instead, the road to democratization will forever have a wall that is simply too high to climb.

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