The world’s most unfair election system – really?

Outside observers find it difficult to understand why AK Party keeps winning.

A Turkish security officer secures the area on an elevated platform as Turkey''s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers his speech in Istanbul [AP]
Turkish security officer secures the area on an elevated platform as Turkey's president delivers his speech in Istanbul [AP]

On June 1, the Guardian published a piece called “The world’s most unfair election system” – the system in question is the Turkish election system. It cannot be denied that this is a timely article, as the Turkish nation goes to the polls on June 7. But is it a fair one?

The article criticises the Turkish system for having a 10 percent threshold. A party must get 10 percent of the vote to win a parliamentary seat. This is the highest threshold in any election system; however, does this intrinsically make the Turkish system the most unfair election system? 

The 10 percent threshold was introduced into Turkish politics in 1983, after the 1980 coup d’etat. Two years ago, the ruling AK Party tried to reduce this threshold, proposing one of two alternatives to the parliament.

Turkish voters head to polls on Sunday

The first was to remove the threshold, and to introduce a single-member district system (direct representation). The second proposal was to introduce a 3-5 percent threshold and narrow regional representation.

Existing system

The opposition parties rejected both proposals, with MHP (National Movement Party) advocating the existing system. CHP (People’s Republican Party – the main opposition party) opted for 5 percent and the existing party lists, while HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) never responded.

It would have been possible for AK Party, which has an absolute majority, to push through the zero threshold and direct representation. However, they opted not to do this in the belief that consensus between all parties being represented was the fairest way to proceed.

Thus, the threshold remained in place, despite AK Party being of the opinion that it should be changed. However, the question as to whether the Turkish system is the most unfair system has yet to be answered. The best answer to this question was given by the European Court of Human Rights in 2007. The court ruled in Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey that this threshold did not contravene Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR (right to free elections).

The Turkish election system has been in place since the 1960s, and has worked well enough to ensure that underdogs can gain the support of the people and replace the ruling party


The fact that this accusation of an unfair system is made by a British paper, less than a month after the British general elections is curious. In the recent elections, a party that won 4.7 percent of the vote (SNP) gained 56 seats, while the Liberal Democrats, having garnered 7.9 percent of the vote, only won eight seats, and UKIP, with 12.9 percent (third largest share of the votes) only got one seat; this result seems rather, well, unfair.

No system is intrinsically one hundred percent fair. First past the post, threshold or no threshold, there are problems with every voting system. The only fair way is to work within the system and to accept the results, whether they are to one’s liking or not.


Another drum that is being banged upon in the run-up to the Turkish elections is that there may be some skullduggery on the day. However, the Turkish election system has been in place since the 1960s, and has worked well enough to ensure that underdogs can gain the support of the people and replace the ruling party; this has happened a number of times, most notably in 1983 when the party of the Junta, the MDP (23 percent was replaced by Turgut Ozal’s ANAP (45 percent). Many times the incumbent has lost to a less influential party which has the support of the people. 

According to a poll published in Hurriyet, carried out by Koc University and Ohio State University, “A large majority of opposition voters, 72 percent, do not trust that the votes will be counted fairly on the evening of June 7 elections. In contrast, just 15 percent of AKP supporters said they believed that votes will be counted fairly.”

I am at a loss as to what the words “in contrast” refer to here. Some 18 percent of opposition voters do not believe that the votes will be counted fairly, while 15 percent of AK Party supporters hold the same belief. There is no contrast here. But there is a problem with wording; the respondents are worried that there will be attempts to miscount votes if possible. They are not worried about wide ranging, result-changing fraud.

Indeed, if one understands how votes are counted in Turkey it is easier to understand why both sides have worries. In the Turkish system, the ballot boxes are made of clear plastic, to prevent ballot stuffing. For every ballot box, a ballot-box committee is established. The committee is made up of seven members of the public; two civil servants, and five representatives from the leading parties.

AKP supporters wave Turkish and party flags as they listen to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at an election rally [REUTERS]
AKP supporters wave Turkish and party flags as they listen to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at an election rally [REUTERS]

Severe punishment

This committee makes sure that all the preparations of the ballots, ballot box, polling booth, etc. are carried out. Logically, if one person tries to stuff ballots, rig votes, etc., the members from other parties will try to prevent them. There is also a severe punishment for anyone caught trying to cheat in the voting process in any way.

In addition to these committees, after the polls have closed, every party and every independent candidate can have an observer at every ballot box.

After the number of used and unused ballots has been counted and recorded the election committee opens the envelopes. Any invalid ballots (ballots in which more than one party’s space has been marked, ballots which have been written upon or ballots that are defaced) are recorded and discarded.

This is the “unfairness” that the Turkish voters are worried about. There are often attempts by representatives of minority parties to get the ballots of other parties cancelled. This is the only “unfair” practice.

However, as all parties are present, and there are observers, such attempts amount, at most, to one or, perhaps, two ballots in some of the ballot boxes. For there to be wide-ranging, result-changing cheating, all the parties involved have to be in cahoots, and this rather defeats the purpose.

Any objections about the count will be sent to the regional board, which consists of a judge and a member from every party (usually a lawyer.) If no satisfaction can be found here, the objections are sent to the provincial board, which has a similar make up and finally, if still not satisfied, objections are transferred to the Higher Election Board.

The Higher Election board consists of 11 judges, with one representative from every major party. These representatives can have access to all documents, can raise objections and present evidence.

Past scandals

When one thinks about past scandals in elections, including, but not limited to, the 2002 US election, with the shenanigans in Florida, the “pregnant chads” and “hanging chads”, and the fact that more than one expert declared that Gore should have won; the Robocall scandal in Canada, where voters were misinformed about their polling stations; the purge of voters (who were dead or felons) in Florida, in which many were later found to be neither dead nor felons, but rather mostly Democrats and/or minorities; the letters sent by “Nick Clegg and David Cameron” to mosques in Britain stating that due to the fight against terrorism, all mosques had to raise 500 pounds sterling every month to help fight ISIL, then one has to wonder why Turkey’s election system is getting such a bad rap.

Elections are tense times; emotions run high. But people in Turkey know that when they go to the polls, the results are theirs.

The fact that AK Party has won three general elections to date, and is heading towards its fourth is unprecedented in modern democracy. But unprecedented is not the same as election fraud.

Perhaps outside observers are finding it difficult to understand why AK Party keeps winning. The answer is easy, as many Turkish voters will confirm. AK Party keeps winning because it keeps delivering. 

Jane Louise Kandur is a freelance translator and journalist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.