Gerrymandering in Turkish elections since 1950: (Re)setting the rules of the game?

Giilsen Kaya Osmanba§oglu


Apart from two minor steps to establish the multiple party system in the early years of the Turkish Republic, which, in any case, ceased within a short time, the real political competition began with the 1950 elections. Demokrat Parti, (the Democrat Party, the DP) was founded in 1945 and gained victory in the 1950 elections. Even though the RPP has dealt with some gerrymandering attempts before the multiparty period, following the 1954 general election the governing DP drastically began to redraw election districts to gain political advantage. The manipulations included downgrading the status of provinces to towns for political retribution and upgrading the status of towns to provinces as political reward. Additionally, the DP divided some larger provinces into smaller ones, creating new electoral populations in a way that was beneficial to the DP.

After the 1960 coup, the general election system was transformed from a majority vote system to a proportional representation system, decreasing the potential for trouble-free abuse of political districts, though not completely eradicating gerrymandering. Nevertheless, gerrymanderers diversified their strategies, a practice that has been ongoing since the 1980s, with a special focus on local elections as well as on metropolitan areas. In general, it is possible to argue that center-right parties engaged in gerrymandering activities in line with their clientelist policymaking style. Following a brief overview to illustrate the concepts of gerrymandering and clientelism, I will focus on various types of gerrymandering in Turkey and their effects on electoral results.

The concept and connotations

Historically, gerrymandering, to a large extent, flourished in the US, which is the very basis of the term itself; it is derived from Massachusetts’s Governor Elbridge Gerry’s name for his intentional distriction. Indeed, the word is actually a combination of his name and the word “salamander”, as his reshaping of electoral districts in favor of the Democratic-Republican Party had the appearance of such; the term was first used in the Boston Gazette on March

26, 1912 (Bickerstaff, 2020, p. 10). Gerrymandering refers to the deliberate manipulation of electoral districts and borders for political gain on the basis of division, concentration, malapportionment, and such calculations based on demographic presumptions. Gerrymandering turns the one person, one vote principle into “one person, one vote, one mess”, creating a kind of electoral bias in which a small percentage of a particular voting population can significantly affect the election results (Niemi & Deegan Jr., 1978; Grofman, 1983). Yet, it remains difficult to unequivocally determine when gerrymandering has occurred. Current election laws and judicial standards are not sufficiently specific or uniform to detect gerrymandering in most cases. As Browning and King note, gerrymandering became a justiciable issue in 1986 in the US, as per the Bandemer case in the literature (1987, p. 305). A decision issued in 2004 by the US Supreme Court attempted to curtail the partisan gerrymandering activities in the US that began with the 2010 redistricting process (McGann et al., 2016). Although gerrymandering is not defended by the courts in general, well-defined standards for detecting gerrymandering in the US remain undefined.

Gerrymandering is seen a barrier to equal representation of the citizenry with the potential to damage the popular representation aspect of a democratic system. Even in consolidated democracies, gerrymandering continues to exist as a method used to manipulate election results by a governing party or opposition, as Balinski (2008, p. 98) observes: “Gerrymandering is widespread and decidedly ecumenical: both parties indulge”. Sometimes the motives behind gerrymandering can be based on the mode of economic production, as Malesky (2009) observed for the Venezuelan subnational division case. On the other hand, in the Slovakian case, nationalism that stemmed from ethnic and religious identity shaped the gerrymandering activities rather than using districting as a reflection of functional economic means (Halas & Klapka, 2017, p. 1572). Here, one should also remember that the Congress Party of India also utilized gerrymandering as a unifying strategy to maintain its majority pow'er in religiously and linguistically divided India (de Mesquita, 1978). Researchers have observed that the effectiveness of gerrymandering varies according to the type of electoral system; how'ever, gerrymandering is more effective in a simple majority system.

Gerrymandering can be accomplished via concentration of votes, allocation of opposition votes, and incumbent displacement, such that opposition voters are placed in as few districts as possible. Allocation gerrymandering is characterized by the redistribution of opposition votes in order to limit their representation and hinder their ability to affect election results. Incumbent displacement gerrymandering is characterized by “eliminating the seats held by the members of the opposing party and combining the homes of opposing party incumbents into a single district” (Owen & Grofman, 1988, p. 6). So, gerrymandering is far from being a monolithic and standardized strategy to gain benefit, but its connotations may depend on the context and legislation.

The effects of gerrymandering vary as well. Some researchers think that gerrymandering can directly shape election results. For instance, Owen and Grofman stated that,

By a combination of the dispersal and concentration gerrymandering techniques a party which expects to have only a minority share of the popular vote (greater than 25 percent), but which is somehow in control of the districting process, can still win a majority of seats by simply allowing its opponent overwhelming control of some districts in which much or all of the opponent’s strength will be wasted.

(1988, p. 6)

This suggests that it is possible to transform a party that is expected to lose into a winning party. Nowadays, some researchers no longer consider gerrymandering to be a risky undertaking; rather, it is viewed as a mathematical strategy with high possibility of obtaining the expected results. Balinski (2008) reported that computer-based statistical analysis has fundamentally changed gerrymandering from an art into a science. Starting from this point of view, Altman and McDonald also underline the complexity of the issue, stating that computer programs might bring more equal representation unless they are abused (2010). So, scholars have developed different points of view as to the extent that computerized systems leave room for attempts at gerrymandering.

On the other hand, the effects of gerrymandering are not consistent, and it does not always return the expected result. McCarty et al. (2009, p. 667) stated that, “manipulation of districting exacerbates polarization”; as such, it is not always possible to predict voter behavior. Carson et al. (2007) observed that in the US, voting is more polarized—according to party affiliation—in newly created electoral districts as compared to well-established districts. In this regard, Bickerstaff also adds the French case, which indicates an unfruitful ecosystem for a gerrymander (2020, p. 214).

Voter volatility makes accurate measurement of voter behavior difficult before an election, so gerrymandering, through redistricting, does not always work accordingly (Abramowitz et al., 2006). Theriault (2008) also thinks that redistricting is a factor that intensifies polarization, as do social and economic structures, legislative issues, and leadership strategies.

As gerrymandering can have partisan effects (Bartels, 2000), McCarty et al. (2009, p. 668) suggest that, “aggressive gerrymandering makes majority party seats less safe”, which further indicates that gerrymandering does not always result in the expected outcome for majority power holders. The above-referenced studies clearly show that multiple factors play crucial roles regarding the possible outcomes of gerrymandering.

Although some researchers suggest that the use of gerrymandering should be eliminated or at least minimized, others continue to investigate how to optimize the process. Redistricting to minimize the effect of partisan voters and accentuate the effect of median voters is suggested for optimal gerrymandering (Friedman & Holden, 2008). Coate and Knight (2007, p. 1) introduced the concept of the “socially optimal” gerrymander, which creates more responsive results in terms of “how the composition of the legislature changes in response to changes in citizens’ voting behavior”. Owen coined the term “sophisticated optimal gerrymander” to describe gerrymandering that maximizes the number of seats for a given party or the potential for majority control of a decade or more,1 and ensures large voter turnout.

In a nutshell, the findings reported in the gerrymandering literature concerning its effectiveness and outcomes are inconsistent. Whereas recent research has indicated that socially optimal gerrymandering can be used with greater predictability, gerrymandering still remains a largely unpredictable endeavor. This literature can be referenced in an effort to understand the use of gerrymandering in Turkey. Apart from its potential to provide an advantage to gerrymanderers, another aspect of the issue can be related to political bargaining. With regard to the Turkish case, I presented a paper in MESA 2016 that is the very basis of this chapter, namely that of dealing with the issue within the framework of clientelism. Notably, Tun? and colleagues published a book on gerrymandering practices in Turkey with particular reference to redistricting through the introduction of the 2013 metropolitan law, Law No: 6360 (2014)2. Bickerstaff also considered the Turkish gerrymandering experience on the basis of pro-Kurdish regions and beyond (2020, p. 209). Qtrkoglu and Aksen published a paper on partisan bias and malapportionment, noting how the system allows for the overrepresentation of the dominant parties (2019). Nevertheless, the vast use of gerrymandering in Turkey is not proportionally reflected in the associated literature, how'- ever, remaining to date an undervalued academic issue. Since the literature on Turkey’s gerrymandering practices is still far from being either satisfactory or broad, this chapter attempts to add a humble perspective to help fill the existing gap.

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