Tyranny of the [Simple] Majority: April 16th Turkish Referendum

Erdogan sign majorityTurkish citizens rally behind Erdogan majority

By, Zak Fama
Zak can be reached at zak@halseynews.com for questions or comments.

Following the results of the 2016 American Presidential election, disdain for the Electoral College swept the nation.  There was widespread outrage that our system could allow the candidate that won the popular vote to be subverted by an institution that awards votes based on winning states.  The Electoral College came under fire as a “threat to democracy.”

For a review, the Electoral College is an institution that was created with the Constitution in 1789 for the purpose of balancing the electoral power in the new United States.  Its purpose was and is to prevent larger states and population-heavy areas from dominating elections.  It is one of the many institutions in place in the American government that acts as a check and/or balance.  Take, for example, the bicameral Congress in the United States: the Senate is a body that benefits the “little guy” e.g. small states.  No matter what a state’s population may be, it receives two seats in the Senate.  The House of Representatives, on the other hand, is a body that benefits the larger states – states receive seats in the House based on population.

electoral college sign

electoral college protesters, picture from CBS News

So how could the Electoral College be a threat to democracy?  To begin, there is a difference between direct democracy and liberal democracy.  If the United States operated under a system of direct democracy, then yes, the Electoral College would not be a “democratic” institution.  But the United States is not a direct democracy, it is a liberal democracy.  Liberal democracy incorporates representative elements such as republicanism in which the people vote for their representatives that are to represent them.  

According to the CIA World Factbook, there are only ten countries in the world that operate under a direct, national popular vote system: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cyprus, Georgia, Ghana, Mexico and Peru.  

What relevance does this have?  On April 16th, 2017 a referendum in the Turkish government effectively signaled the end of liberal democracy in Turkey.  This referendum grants extensive power to the executive.  President Recep Erdogan hailed this as a major victory for the Turkish people.  The victory was narrow; 51.3% in favor of the referendum, 48.7% in opposition.  

The Turkish Constitution will now be changed and whomever wins the 2019 election will assume full control of the government.  The current parliamentary system and continued pro-democratic movements that emerged after the Arab Spring movements swept the Middle East in 2011 are over.  The fear is that Turkey will likely regress into an authoritarian regime.

This brings me to my point of addressing the “tyranny of the majority.”  The situation in Turkey emphasizes the importance of the fact that a simple majority cannot overrule or modify the Constitution in the United States.  There is a direct, inherent weakness of direct democracy, and that is that it allows the majority to exploit the minority via a narrow margin e.g. 51% to 49%.  This would allow despots and tyrants to exercise power at their will.  

The weaknesses of direct democracy date back to democracy’s conception in ancient Athens. Even Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, those that played a critical role in the developments of democracy, held staunch criticisms about the system.  Even today, perhaps why Greece has such a low-quality version of democracy, the Greek model makes the population feel as if every individual is entitled to their share in the government’s actions.  

The significance of the emerging situation in Turkey is not just a problem for Western foreign policy going forward. It illustrates the danger of allowing simple majority voting systems.  Even in parliamentary systems like the one in Turkey, party coalitions allow minority parties to have some sort of voice in the administration.  But as seen, those in favor of more authoritarian control can use and abuse a system of simple majority to overcome the will of the opposition.  

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