Book Review – “Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey” by Elise Massicard

Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022)

During the last century, Turkey has seen the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, the first democratic elections in 1950, multiple coups in the following decades, the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003, and the move from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2018. Throughout this time, a relatively unknown institution, the muhtarlik, has remained in place in Turkey, with only a brief intermission between 1933 and 1944.

The muhtarlik is “halfway between a state administration and a local elected body.”[1] Headed by the muhtar, the muhtarlik is the institution closest to Turkish citizens. Its functions are far from well-defined but often include issuing documents, coordinating social welfare, and liaising with municipal authorities.

In her 2022 book, “Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey”, Elise Massicard, a research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po University (Paris), presents a fascinating account of the muhtarlik. Massicard’s work, which sits at the intersection of anthropology and political science, is built on both secondary sources and her direct observation of how six muhtars performed their role in Istanbul during the 2013-2014 period.

Although the institution of the muhtarlik was established in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the Tanzimat reforms introduced in the Ottoman Empire, it is only since 1977 that the muhtars have received an income from the central government for their work. Furthermore, this remuneration has traditionally not been enough to make ends meet. This explains why “the muhtarlik is often a secondary occupation in the eyes of its holders.”[2] Those muhtars who have an additional job are usually self-employed or small business owners, allowing them to reconcile both positions. Pensioners and women outside of the labour force are also frequent holders of the muhtar office. Although Massicard does not present statistics on the percentage of muhtars who are women, the cases she discusses appear to indicate that this percentage is higher than that of mayors who are women – less than 3 percent in 2014.[3]

The path toward becoming muhtar does not require any kind of formal education. Instead, social embeddedness is essential. As Massicard writes, “local anchoring is key to the muhtar’s role.”[4] This is true in at least two ways. Firstly, in their ambiguous position as a mediator between the citizens of a neighbourhood and the state, the muhtar must know their constituents well in order to effectively carry out their role.

Although not all muhtars engage themselves personally to the same extent, a muhtar interviewed by the author explained, “when bedridden people need a certificate, I go to their home to check that they actually live there and that they are bedridden. If that is the case, I provide the documents, but I don’t give one without checking.”[5]

Secondly, staying close to the community is indispensable if the muhtar seeks to be re-elected. Muhtars themselves recognize that being the ones distributing voter cards gives them a certain advantage over other candidates. However, the electoral campaigns, which take place together with municipal elections every five years, can often be intense.

The muhtars are not politicians but engage in practices that bear the marks of traditional politics. This can be seen when the candidates for the muhtarlik, in advance of the election, must present their team of azas – assistants who will help the muhtar in their role if elected. Prospective azas are frequently chosen by the muhtar candidate from diverse religious affiliations, regional origins, and party sympathies to maximize support from different sectors of voters.

Massicard finds that “muhtars declare themselves to be primarily on the people’s side.”[6] Nevertheless, the muhtars have certain obligations vis-à-vis the state that might compromise this self-identification. For instance, they are required to support law enforcement agencies by assisting with police arrests and informing them about security issues.

One muhtar told Massicard that she was once asked by the police to help take a man into custody who was being investigated for murder. The muhtar had to comply despite the fact that she was a childhood friend of the suspect’s mother and was convinced that the man was innocent, as the police eventually determined.

Massicard makes clear that there is significant variation in the functions and volume of work performed in different muhtarliks. The size of the neighbourhood is obviously a determining factor, but the socioeconomic status of its inhabitants also plays a role, since “groups who are disadvantaged (…) solicit muhtars more frequently.”[7] Wealthier neighbourhoods are generally closer to administrative centres and their citizens tend to be comparatively more educated, which often renders the intermediating role of the muhtar redundant.

“Street-Level Governing”presents a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a muhtar in Istanbul. Massicard studies muhtars working in neighbourhoods that differ in size, socioeconomic conditions, and history. Whereas some of the muhtarliks under study are found in historical districts of the city, others belong to the precarious gecekondu settlements that emerged as a result of mass rural migration to Turkey’s major cities in the second half of the twentieth century. The interview snippets that Massicard introduces in the book, in conjunction with her meticulous contextualization, provide an incomparable window into the work of the muhtars.

Nevertheless, it is evident that some of the main findings in “Street-Level Governing”can not necessarily be extrapolated to more rural settings or Turkey’s southeast, with its significant Kurdish population. Since 2016, following the collapse of the peace process with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in government has implemented a severe crackdown on local autonomy in the Kurdish areas of Turkey.

In this context of repression, many of the municipality representatives aligned with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been replaced by government-appointed officials.[8] Drawing on Massicard’s work, it would be extremely relevant to investigate how muhtars in these contested municipalities navigate the open conflict between the central state and the HDP local authorities. As Massicard notes, many muhtars close to the HDP, as well as to other opposition parties, have resented Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls for a closer connection between the presidency and the muhtars, viewing this as a threat to their authority.

Throughout his almost two decades in power, Erdogan has introduced significant changes affecting the muhtars. In 2014, the remuneration of the muhtars was doubled and is now above the national minimum wage. These new benefits, however, do not come without demands from the government. Instead, they are part of the process by which, as Massicard remarks, “central authorities have asserted growing control over muhtars” in recent times.[9]

The immediate future of the muhtarlik institution is far from clear, even less so as Turkey finds itself in the prologue to decisive presidential and parliamentary elections that could bring the opposition into power. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the role of the muhtars will continue evolving, as it has been doing since it was created in the Ottoman era, while remaining the institution that, as Massicard aptly puts it, “collapses the assumed social distance between the “state” and the residents.”[10] “Street-Level Governing” is a commendable study that approaches contemporary Turkey from an original angle with both rigour and scholarship. It certainly deserves to be read and discussed.

[1] Massicard, Elise. Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), p.2.
[2] Ibid., p. 52.
[3] Sumbas, Ahu. “Gendered Local Politics: The Barriers to Women’s Representation in Turkey.” Democratization 27, no. 4 (2020): 573.
[4] Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey, p. 60.
[5] Ibid., pp. 93-94.
[6] Ibid., p. 152.
[7] Ibid., p. 164.
[8] Güvenç, Muna. “Mayors and Municipalities: How Local Government Shapes Kurdish Politics in Turkey.” Middle East Brief. Waltham: Crown Center for Middle East Studies, May 2022, p. 5. Retrieved from https://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/middle-east-briefs/index.html.
[9] Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey, p. 268.
[10] Ibid., p. 124.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.