Decision 2009: The Race for Muhtar

March 25, 2009
A fair bit of attention is being paid in the international media these days to the upcoming municipal elections in Turkey. On March 29, cities across Turkey (and “boroughs” inside major cities like Istanbul) will vote for mayor. One of the major questions of the day is whether or not the AK Party, which also holds power nationally in Ankara, will be able to receive more than fifty percent of the vote nationwide. While reaching fifty percent will have no practical impact on the status of the ruling AK Party in Turkey (except, of course, with respect to election returns), given the dominant position of the party in Turkish politics these days the "fifty percent or more" question is one of the only mysteries left.
And certainly, during a time when the state (meaning departments of the permanent bureaucracy which have, over the last six years, come under the effective control of AK Party appointees) is taking on not only major figures in the military and the opposition, but also the media, any convincing mandate in elections would be of major importance to the AK Party. Moreover, the fact that US President Obama is coming to Turkey immediately after the elections could also conceivably make it more important for Prime Minister Erdoğan to put in a good performance, particularly in light of recent American criticism (in the form of a State Department-produced human rights report) on freedom of expression in Turkey (although the report tended to focus upon issues for which Turkey is criticized every year, like Kurdish-language issues, rather than for the media crackdown that has been taking place specifically under Erdogan). 
One aspect of the upcoming elections that hasn’t received so much attention is the elections which are also taking place at the muhtar level. In Turkish villages, the muhtar is the most important administrative figure, the head of the village council who oversees most of the village administration. In big cities such as Istanbul, each neighborhood also has a muhtar (but not a council). In the 1990s I lived for five years in a mahalle (neighborhood) known as Muradiye (located between the larger neighborhoods of Teşvikiye and Beşiktaş). The only time I saw my muhtar was when I needed paperwork related to my residence permit. When I first moved in to the neighborhood, I went to the muhtar in order to register. I showed him my passport and lease and he wrote my name and information into a thick book. In following years, I was sometimes asked to produce a slip of paper from the muhtar when I renewed my residence permit.
Muhtars do more than just register people (Turkish citizens and foreigners alike) in their neighborhoods. They are also responsible for helping people obtain other important documents, like birth certificates. Moreover, in both cities and villages alike, they can lobby higher-up officials for improvements to their areas. In the Izmir district of Bornova, for example, a candidate for muhtar is campaigning on the promise of erecting public toilets. Candidates for muhtar often focus on issues like improving public transportation to and from their neighborhoods, increasing trash collection, and, in the Seyrantepe district of Sivas, encouraging the production of women's handicrafts.

In Istanbul, the muhtars are often shopkeepers who conduct their muhtar duties in their workplaces. Abdullah Bey ("Mr. Abdullah"), who was the muhtar that I always dealt with in Muradiye, owned a small grocery store across the street from Beşiktaş Pazarı. His office was located in the back of the store which he ran with his kids. When I’d go in to get a paper from him that I needed to show to get my residence permit renewed, he’d often be in the middle of selling a newspaper or bread to somebody. His kids would run the register while he was in the back filling out my paperwork.
The muhtar’s term in office is five years, and the elections for muhtar coincide with municipal elections, which are always held simultaneously across Turkey. Unlike candidates for municipal elections, however, candidates for muhtar do not run with a party affiliation. The last year I lived in Muradiye, Abdullah Bey did not run again as a candidate. The two candidates who ran to replace him were Ahmet Abi (“Big Brother Ahmet,” which is what everybody called him though this moniker did not appear on his campaign literature), who ran a grocery just up the street from me on Göknar Sokak, and the young woman (I think her name was Arzu) who ran the pharmacy one street parallel to mine.
It was quite the campaign, not least of which because Ahmet Abi’s campaign posters featured a photograph of him wearing a flashy suit and tie. Ahmet Abi’s opponent, the pharmacist, had posters printed which described her as “contemporary, hardworking, and güleryüzlü,” the last of these adjectives being a Turkish word means “someone who likes to smile.” Everyone, it seemed, had decided in advance that Ahmet Abi was going to win the race, but in the end the smiling pharmacist carried the day. I guess the voters of Muradiye felt they were in need of a smile.
This year in Arnavutköy, meanwhile, the race is between Terzi Hikmet (“Hikmet the Tailor”), and Sedef Hanım ("Mrs. Sedef"), the incumbent. Sedef Hanım doesn’t apparently have a job other than that of muhtar, so she carries out her duties in an office that she rents across the street from the big Greek church. Terzi Hikmet’s shop is on the main road running perpendicular to the Bosphorus.
What can Terzi Hikmet do for you? 
Terzi Hikmet is campaigning aggressively, plastering the neighborhood with campaign posters. Sedef Hanım's campaign, meanwhile, is decidedly more low-key. The only poster of hers that I've seen was right outside her office. Then again, she does have the power of incumbency on her side. 
People that I've asked in the neighborhood tell me that, despite Terzi Hikmet's full-fledged campaign, they think the race will be close. Most people don't think that all of the posters are going to make much of a difference, since everyone in the neighborhood knows the two candidates well, anyway.
In any case, given the sorry state of the opposition Republican People’s Party (in Turkish, CHP) these days, the muhtar races might well end up providing most of the real excitment on election night this year.