06/11/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

The Erdogan Problem

by Neophytos Loizides

There is an important distinction in describing political systems that most current analyses on Turkey seem to have missed. In majoritarian democracies decisions are usually determined by a plurality of voters while in consensus democracies by 'as many people as possible.' Both options claim to foster moderation and effective decision-making either by privileging single governing parties as in Turkey or by encouraging regional decentralization and nationwide party coalitions as in most continental European political systems.

Until recently, Turkey has been a promising case of majoritarianism. Erdoğan's government has achieved a remarkable level of economic and political stability particularly in comparison to the country's neighbors. GDP per capita has tripled in AKP's decade in power and Turkey is now included among the 15th largest economies of the planet. Turkey's political system excluded from parliament any party with less than ten per cent of the national vote but Erdoğan rallied around him liberal and Kurdish circles sympathizing with AKP's democratic reforms. As a consequence, he reduced the influence of the military in civilian affairs and minimized the party fragmentation prevalent in the 1990s.

But majoritarian political systems frequently leave important social and political groups excluded or underrepresented. Once a sufficient plurality offers the leader a strong mandate, inclusivity becomes less of a priority. Lack of coalitions and public consultation could lead to a dismissive style of government with elected rulers gradually losing their mandate in the public eye. Citizens especially the younger ones cannot wait for elections, if a leader's actions get out of control or violate social and legal norms in suppressing dissent. Even more worrisomely, minority views can be permanently excluded from decision-making, leading to further polarization and conflict. In a majoritarian political system leaders could keep winning elections simply by appealing to their own party constituencies ignoring the rest of the country.

Turkey's 'Erdoğan problem' is not a personal one but primarily one of political institutions. Critics suggest that the Turkish PM himself will have to resign before any meaningful reforms could occur in the country. If there is one problem with this argument is that it focuses solidly on specific political grievances rather than the route problem, Turkey's democratic deficit. And grievances need to be seen in perspective: Are airline employees instructed not to use red lipstick less oppressed than those denied a job or education because of wearing the headscarf? Are those referred to as looters better treated than those denied proper use of their ethnic language? The success of the Gezi Park movement will depend on framing broader concerns and demanding inclusive institutional reforms for a wider group of individuals across political or ethnic affiliations.

Equally, both government and opposition could address protesters' grievances through an opening of democratic processes in Turkey. Erdoğan's preference for the direct election of a president might sound on surface as more democratic but it could also lead to increased majoritarianism and polarization of under-represented groups, if checks and balances are to be abandoned. The challenge for democratic reform is firstly to prevent polarization and secondly to incentivise wider representation within the political system. Regional decentralization and lifting the ten per cent threshold for entry to the parliament will facilitate a more proportional, inclusive and fair representation. But equally important are social and institutional norms sustaining consensus democracy.

Arend Lijphart calls this a 'kinder and gentler' democracy as it leads to higher welfare spending, better care for the environment and improved human rights. Consensus democracies have been shown to be better in managing social and ethnic tensions but also in sustaining effective fiscal policies in times of a global financial crisis. Turkey's negative experience of coalitions in the 1990s should not overrule this possibility. Turkey today has more experience with democratic politics, it is less influenced by the military and has a much larger and educated middle class compared to the 1990s. Its citizens could conceivably choose to sacrifice some of the advantages of strong leadership for the sake of broader consensus. After all coalition governments have governed effectively most countries in continental Europe since WWII despite major differences among ethnic, religious, and social groups. Even in debt-ridden countries new multi-party coalition governments have emerged steering countries such as Ireland, Latvia, and even Greece away from the Eurozone crisis.

In Turkey decentralizing and lifting the ten percent threshold could convert the Kurdish vote and other minority groups into equal players within the country's political system. It would also challenge AKP to reinvent itself and continue reforms on the Kurdish issue. This would be great news for democratic pluralism transforming political competition in Turkey into a win-win game.