Center for Electoral Forensics

Turkish Delight

[Turkish Flag]Once again, Erdoğan seeks to alter the political structure of the Republic of Turkey. When he became the Prime Minister in 2003, the Turkish state reflected the long Turkish history of seeking Europe. Atatürk created a Western state out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The new Republic of Turkey combined France's parliamentary system and anti-clericalism. Since then, Erdoğan has consistently moved Turkey from a French system towards a US system.

The 2017 constitutional referendum marked the latest step. How did it go, and what can we learn about Turkey?

[Recep Tayyip Erdoğan]

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of the Republic of Turkey

In the aftermath of World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic with capital in Ankara. To push Turkey more towards the West — and perceived modernity — Atatürk ensured that a secular state rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire by creating a constitution espousing a semi-parliamentary system, separation of church and state, and an open market.

Arguably, all three aspects were of French origin. Arguably none of the three aspects were new to Anatolia. The push for modernization arose from the Ottoman desire to check Russia's power. Having lost, once again, to the expansionist Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire embarked on a campaign to modernize — its army, its economy, and its political system.

This led the Ottomans to enlist German military advisors. It also led to the birth of the Young Turk movement. This movement eventually created a multiparty democracy in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. It also saw the end of the turban as the headwear of choice, statutorily replaced by the fez.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of World War I, Atatürk fought to keep Anatolia unified in face of Entente troops. He succeeded, but the cost was making Ankara the capital of Republican Turkey, a small town on the Anatolian plain, rather than the historic and bustling cosmopolis of İstanbul.

To help ensure the West would see Turkey as a genuine modern country, Atatürk banned the fez, opened the markets, and followed a typical Western government structure: the prime minister held the real power, and the president was the symbol of the country's unity. A separation of church and state was enforced to the point that public displays of religion in government buildings was banned.

The Twenty-First Century

While the parliamentary system did keep Turkey from succumbing to autocratic rule, its power structure encouraged highly variable rule. At times, Ankara would be unable to successfully deal with the current troubles. At other times, the prime minister would be able to consolidate sufficient power to have the military step in to restore the rule of law and the constitution.

Seeing this as a problem, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began in 2003 a long-term program to alter the political structure of the Turkish Republic, to change it from an (arguably) ineffective parliamentary system to a presidential system based on that of the United States. He also changed the concept of "separation of church and state" from the French anti-clericalism to the American secularism.

The most recent step in that process was to alter the Turkish Constitution. In short, the following were the proposed alterations to the constitution:

[bg_collapse view="link-list" color="#000000" icon="eye" expand_text="Show Proposed Constitutional Alterations" collapse_text="Hide Proposed Constitutional Alterations" ]

Proposal # Article Description of change
1 Article 9 The judiciary is required to act on condition of impartiality.
2 Article 75 The number of seats in the Parliament is raised from 550 to 600.
3 Article 76 The age requirement to stand as a candidate in an election to be lowered from 25 to 18, while the condition of having to complete compulsory military service is to be removed. Individuals with relations to the military would be ineligible to run for election.
4 Article 77 Parliamentary terms are extended from four to five years. Parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on the same day every five years, with presidential elections going to a run-off if no candidate wins a simple majority in the first round.
5 Article 87 The functions of Parliament are

  • Making, changing, removing laws.
  • Accepting international contracts.
  • Discuss, increase or decrease budget (on Budget Commission) and accept or reject the budget on General Assembly.
  • Appoint 7 members of HSYK
  • And using other powers written in the constitution
5 Article 89 To overcome a presidential veto, the Parliament needs to adopt the same bill with an absolute majority (301).
6 Article 98 Parliament now detects cabinet and Vice President with Parliamentary Research, Parliamentary Investigation, General Discussion and Written Question. Interpellation is abolished and replaced with Parliamentary Investigation. Vice President needs to answer Written Questions within 15 days.
7 Article 101 In order to stand as a presidential candidate, an individual requires the endorsement of one or more parties that won 5% or more in the preceding parliamentary elections and 100,000 voters. The elected president no longer needs to terminate their party membership if they have one.
8 Article 104 The President becomes both the head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and sack ministers and Vice President. The president can issue decrees about executive. If legislation makes a law about the same topic that President issued an executive order, decree will become invalid and parliamentary law become valid.
9 Article 105 Parliament can open parliamentary investigation with an absolute majority (301). Parliament discusses proposal in 1 month. Following the completion of Discussion, Parliamentary investigation can begin in Parliament with a hidden three-fifths (360) vote in favor. Following the completion of investigations, the parliament can vote to indict the President with a hidden two-thirds (400) vote in favor.
10 Article 106 The President can appoint one or more Vice Presidents. If the Presidency falls vacant, then fresh presidential elections must be held within 45 days. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections. If the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, then the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which both presidential and parliamentary elections are held. This does not count towards the President's two-term limit. Parliamentary investigations into possible crimes committed by Vice Presidents and ministers can begin in Parliament with a three-fifths vote in favor. Following the completion of investigations, the parliament can vote to indict Vice Presidents or ministers with a two-thirds vote in favor. If found guilty, the Vice President or minister in question is only removed from office if their crime is one that bars them from running for election. If a sitting MP is appointed as a minister or Vice President, their parliamentary membership will be terminated.
11 Article 116 The President and three-fifths of the Parliament can decide to renew elections. In this case, the enactor also dissolves itself until elections.
12 Article 119 The President's ability to declare state of emergency is now subject to parliamentary approval to take effect. The Parliament can extend, remove or shorten it. States of emergency can be extended for up to four months at a time except during war, where no such limitation will be required. Every presidential decree issues during a state of emergency will need an approval of Parliament.
13 Article 125 The acts of the President are now subject to judicial review.
13 Article 142 Military courts are abolished unless they are erected to investigate actions of soldiers under conditions of war.
13 Article 146 The President used to appoint one Justice from High Military Court of Appeals, and one from the High Military Administrative Court. As military courts are abolished, the number of Justices in the Constitutional Court reduced to 15 from 17. Consequently, presidential appointees reduced to 12 from 14, while the Parliament continues to appoint three.
14 Article 159 Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors is renamed to "Board of Judges and Prosecutors", members are reduced to 13 from 22, departments are reduced to 2 from 3. 4 members are appointed by President, 7 will be appointed by the Grand Assembly. Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) candidates will need to get 2/3 (400) votes to pass first round and will need 3/5 (360) votes in second round to be a member of HSYK. (Other 2 members are Justice Minister and Ministry of Justice Undersecretary, which is unchanged).
15 Article 161 President proposes fiscal budget to Grand Assembly 75 days prior to fiscal new year. Budget Commission members can make changes to budget but Parliamentary members cannot make proposals to change public expenditures. If the budget is not approved, then a temporary budget will be proposed. If the temporary budget is also not approved, the previous year's budget would be used with the previous year's increment ratio.
16 Several articles Adaptation of several articles of the constitution with other changes, mainly transferring executive powers of cabinet to President
16 Article 123 President gets power to create States.
17 Temporary Article 21 Next presidential and General elections will be held on 3 November 2019. If Grand Assembly decides early elections, both will be held at the same day. Board of Judges and Prosecutors elections will be made within 30 days of approval of this law. Military courts will be abolished once the law comes into force.
18 Applicability of amendments 1-17 The amendments (2, 4 and 7) will come into force after new elections, other amendments (except temporary article) will come into force once newly elected president is sworn in. Annulled the article which elected Presidents forfeit membership in a political party. This constitutional amendment will be voted in a referendum as a whole.



This entire table can be located in English here.

Two parties were strongly in favor of the changes: Erdoğan's Justice and Development party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP). The two parties officially against the referendum were the Republican People's party (CHP) and the People's Democratic party (HDP).

The following is a map of the support level for the referendum in each of Turkey's 81 provinces. Note that the support tends to be higher in rural areas and lower in urban areas.

[yes map]

Map of "Yes" support for the Constitutional referendum.

That rural support was sufficient, however, for the referendum to pass, albeit barely. Just 51.41% of the vote cast were in favor of the referendum. It was the closest vote Erdoğan has experienced during his tenure leading Turkey.

Charges of Unfairness

Not surprisingly, claims of unfairness were made. Certain claims can be definitively tested, such as the claim that the Yes camp accounted for 90% of the television time allowed, or claims that the Yes camp were allowed to campaign overseas in contravention of Turkish law.

Other claims can only be tested indirectly. That is where we step in.

One claim is that the No ballots were invalidated at a higher rate than the Yes ballots. This, we can test using statistics. If the claim is true, then a plot of the invalidation rate against the Yes support should indicate a statistically significant relationship between the two.

The following graphic tests this hypothesis.

[invalidation plot 1]

Invalidation plot for the 2017 constitutional referendum.

The line is the ordinary least squares line of best fit. That it is essentially horizontal indicates that there is no significant evidence of differential invalidation. The hyperbolas define the Working-Hotelling region, a region in which we are 95% confident the population relationship between these two variables exists. Since a horizontal line (absolutely no relationship) fits between the hyperbolas, we also have no significant evidence of differential invalidation. Finally, since the p-value (0.1830) of the test of H0 : β1 = 0 is greater than typical values of α, we also fail to reject that null hypothesis.

In fewer words: the data do not support the claim of unfairness.

Persistent Problem

It is interesting, however, that the results do suggest some persistent problems with Turkish elections. Here is a map of the invalidation rates at the province (“il” or “vilayet”) level.

[invalidation map]

Map of the invalidation rate for the Constitutional referendum.

For those who understand Turkish history and politics, the hot spot of higher-than-average invalidation rates in the southeast of Turkey suggests one thing: The Kurds.

It would be helpful to include in our model the proportion of Kurds in each province. However, the last time Turkey asked that question in its census was 1965.

In lieu of using the proportion of people in the province who identify as Kurdish, let us use the proportion of people in the province who voted for the candidate of the People's Democratic party (HDP). Since the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party identifies the HDP as its sister party, this replacement variable has face validity.

The following is a invalidation plot for the 2017 referendum when including the proportion of the vote for the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP)

[kurdish invalidation plot]

Invalidation plot for the 2017 constitutional referendum, comparing the invalidation rates for Kurdish and non-Kurdish areas.

Note that the slope of neither line is significantly different from zero, indicating no evidence of differential invalidation with respect to whether or not the ballot was in favor of the constitutional referendum. However, the Kurdish effect is highly significant (p-value ≈ 4.61 × 10-9).

Again, for those who follow Turkish history and politics, that there is a Kurdish effect is not surprising. The effect is also quite obvious.


The magnitude of the effect is rather small (b2 = 0.0077), thus it most likely did not affect the outcome of the referendum results. However, that the effect exists is unfortunate and is a continuing blight on the robust Turkish democracy.

The fix is a lot more difficult to implement than merely pointing out the issue. After the end of World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk crafted a modern Turkey out of the rump of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout these five score years, the unity of the Turkish state remained sacrosanct. Being a citizen of the Republic of Turkey meant you were a Turk. You believed in Atatürk's goal. You spoke Turkish. You identified as being Turkish.

The Kurds in the southeast did not fit within Atatürk's dream. They spoke and wrote Kurdish, not Turkish.

To fix the differential invalidation, Turkey needs to either completely suppress Kurdistan or create bilingual ballot papers. The first is currently termed genocide. The latter betray's Atatürk's hopes for the Republic.

Official electoral body: Supreme Electoral Council (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu, YSK)
Election date: April 16, 2017
Results: Unofficial

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