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The democratic deficit in Turkey’s electoral system

The Constitutional Court changes the way MPs are allocated across Turkish provinces

Supporters of proportional representation rejoice! Turkish voters have true equality in our time. Turkey’s constitutional court has just ruled that Turkish members of parliament should be elected not according to their province, but the number of voters that live in it. It follows a challenge from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to a law passed in parliament last year.

Turkey is divided into 81 provinces, ranging from tiny Bayburt (in the northeast, population 90 thousand) to gargantuan Istanbul (where everyone thinks it is, population 13 million). The number of MPs allocated to each province is determined by the Electoral Commission, which looks at each province’s record population for the previous year and shares out Turkey’s 550 MPs accordingly.

That might sound quite fair. But Turkey’s population is heavily concentrated in the country’s northwest: the further south and the further east you go, the smaller provinces become. So small are some provinces – such as Bayburt – that the proportional system would barely allocate them a single member of parliament. The unrevised law would have ensured every province had at least two representatives.

Is it a vote winner for the opposition? Possibly. The smallest provinces are likelier to vote for the ruling AK Party than the CHP. Bayburt no exception: they voted overwhelmingly (60 percent) for AK and will likely do so again, meaning that they’ll now return half as many AK representatives. The superfluous MP, meanwhile, will be allocated to a larger town where CHP has a better chance.

But there is a broader question about democratic deficit here. What if the sitting MP resigns his seat, or dies in office? Provinces like Bayburt would be left with no representative at all. And by-elections are rarely held in Turkey: hours after the 2007 election, a newly-elected MP for the third-placed Nationalist Action Party was killed in a traffic accident while on his way to collect his credentials. He was not replaced.

The real problem is that Turkey has too many provinces. There were originally 67 of them until Turgut Özal, prime minister for much of the 1980s, had the idea of upgrading certain larger towns, mostly in the deprived southeast to provinces. This gave them their own governor (appointed from Ankara), a larger share of the state budget and, crucially, their very own licence plate code. Since then, the promise of provincehood has become something of a vote winner, and sure enough the cake is to be divided further: two towns are to break off from Hakkari and Şanlıurfa provinces, both in the southeast, after the next election. What is really needed is a complete reorganisation.

Update 11am, 18 February: it would appear from Tarhan Erdem’s calculations in this morning’s Radikal that the only province that would be reduced to one MP is indeed Bayburt. Istanbul’s tally soars from 70 to 85. The only region of the country outside of the northwest to be represented by more MPs after the next election is, interestingly, the southeast.

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