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Not a very normal threshold

Europe’s highest court throws out arguments that Turkey’s electoral threshold, at 10%, is too high

10 percentEurope’s highest court throws out arguments that Turkey’s electoral threshold, at 10%, is too high

The European Court of Human Rights reported back yesterday on the case of Mehmet Yumak and Resul Sadak, who had taken Turkey to the court over the 10 percent electoral threshold. Both Mr Yumak and Mr Sadak were candidates for DEHAP – the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party – in the 2002 general election. They stood in the province of Şırnak and won a considerable majority, nearly 46 percent, but did not enter parliament in Ankara because their party failed to cross the 10 percent national electoral threshold (see “Will the electoral threshold ever fall?”).

The injustice of the threshold is plain: after that 2002 election, around 45 percent of Turkish voters found their vote didn’t really count. All five of the parties that had vaulted the barrier three years previously this time stumbled at it. They included the three parties that had been in government. True, they were all subject to an overwhelming protest vote, but they still did have around eight million votes – nearly a fifth of all those cast – between them. Add to that the ballots for the other parties that failed to cross the threshold, and you get nearly 14 million votes. That is almost one in every two votes disregarded. Never in the history of Turkish democracy have so many been represented by so few.

All this was why I rather stunned when I saw this morning’s headline in Türkiye: “European Court of Human Rights say 10% threshold is normal”. The ECHR surely couldn’t have ruled in favour of a measure that smothers broad representation – could it?

It seems it could, although I have to make one thing clear: the Court did not refer to the threshold as normal. In fact, in the text of its judgement, it says it considers it “very regrettable to prevent political parties which represent millions of voters from entering the national legislature”. The threshold, the Court says, is “twice as high as the European average” and there is a lack of corrective counterbalances to ensure the free expression of all people, however they voted.

But the Court does also say that it cannot order the lowering of the barrier. Electoral barriers are in place in many other European democracies, and although Turkey’s is among the highest, the Court has no specific threshold law on which it can depend, nor any examples it can suggest.

So that’s that. The ECHR has avoided wading into the debate, and the Turkish press has chosen to interpret it as an approval of the barrier. Radikal‘s headline, for instance, is “ECHR visa for 10 percent threshold”. But closer inspection of the judgement text reveals the Court’s real thinking: “the electoral system, including the threshold in question, is the subject of much debate within Turkish society and … numerous proposals of ways to correct the threshold’s effects are being made both in parliament and among leading figures of civil society”.

That is perhaps the most important sentence in the entire document. The electoral threshold is wrong, yes, and it needs to be lowered, yes. But it is not a problem that will be solved with an instinct order from a distant court. The threshold can only be lowered in Turkey, by Turkish politicians. The more pressing question is whether it will happen before this November’s elections.

For the Court’s judgement in full, visit their website at http://www.echr.coe.int and search for Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey (application no. 10226/03).

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