‘Civic Participation’ or ‘Customer Satisfaction’? Waves of Centralization, Decentralization and Recentralization from the Ottoman Empire until Today

‘Civic Participation’ or ‘Customer Satisfaction’?
Waves of Centralization, Decentralization and Recentralization
from the Ottoman Empire until Today


High interest in who would win local elections in March 2014 and the implications this might have for Erdoğan’s political career relegated an important legal change to the fringe: with the election Law 6360 that became active a law interpreted by many as leading to a recentralization of local politics in Turkey. A strong centralist tradition from the Ottoman Empire over the founding of the republic till today is characteristic for Turkey. This in turn prevented strong local governments from coming into being. The article traces down different periods of centralization, de-centralization and re-centralization of local politics, explains their most important effects and analyses them in the political context of their time. The introduction of greater municipalities in 1984 as well as two comprehensive law reforms on municpalities and greater municipalities under the AKP government in 2004 and 2005 are discussed. In this context phenomena as ‘new municipalism’ (CHP) and ‘conservative municipalism’ (RP/AKP) are explained. Much attention is given to the most recent reform in November 2012 (Law 6360) and the positions of critics and advocates of the law are illustrated. The article argues that municipalism in Turkey is dominated by economic considerations since the 1980s; as a result citizens are often not participants or partners in decision-making processes but mere consumers whose service needs have to be satisfied.


High interest in who would win local elections in March 2014 and the implications this might have for Erdoğan’s political career relegated an important legal change to the fringe: with the election Law 6360 became active a law interpreted by many as leading to a recentralization of local politics in Turkey. A strong centralist tradition- from the Ottoman Empire over the founding of the republic till today is characteristic for Turkey. This article traces down different periods of centralization, de-centralization and re-centralization of local politics, explains their most important effects and analyses them in the political context of their time. As Turkey is a rapidly increasing urban society (with more than 75% of its citizens living in cities) the main focus is on the belediye (municipality) und büyükşehir belediyesi (greater municipality) level. The historic part starts with the introduction (or rather first attempts) of a municipal system in the final stage of the Ottoman Empire and then moves on to the introduction of a complete municipal system in the first years of the Turkish Republic (1930, Law 1580).The introduction of greater municipalities in 1983 (Law 3030) and the increasing competences that came along with it, turned big cities into important economic players. The article discusses what the new financial position of cities meant for the role of the mayor and the relation between municipality and citizens e.g. with regard to investment, land use, corruption and outsourcing.

After its landslide victory in 2002 the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) initiated a process of decentralization of political power, strongly manifested by two law reforms in 2004 and 2005 giving more power to local authorities. Consequently, the adoption of Law 6360 in November 2012 came as a surprise as it strengthened the role of central government in local politics and led to a re-centralization of political power. Methodologically this article draws on an analysis of the relevant laws, anthropological fieldwork on local politics in Konya, Eskişehir and Ankara in 2011 and 2013, and is complemented by literature research.

The Legal Basis of Local Government

The legal basis of local government and administration are Articles 123 and 127 of the constitution. Three organizational levels can be distinguished: province (il), town (belediye) and village (köy). The 81 provinces have far-reaching competences regarding education, health service and infrastructure laid down in the Provincial Administration Law (il idaresi kanunu) 5442 of 1949. The governor (vali) is not elected directly by the people but appointed by the government and represents both state and government in this province (Heper, 1991:583). However, it may be discussed whether the provincial administrations de facto rather resemble local government. Their tasks like infrastructure, water- and telephone lines, schools- and health institutions and the organization of markets rather remind of a government than of a pure administrative institution (Heper, 1991: 584).

The second level consists of towns with a population of at least 5.000, called belediye.[1] The governmental tasks there are executed by the mayor, the executive committee and the city council (belediye meclisi). Elections take place every five years. An additional level regarding municipal politics is the greater municipality (büyükşehir belediyesi) which was established in 1984, the function of which will be further explained in the historical review.[2] Law 6360 passed in the Turkish parliament in November 2012 and increased the number of greater municipalities from sixteen to 30 and amended their competences.[3] The full implications of Law 6360 will be further explained in the last section of this article with regard to the recentralisation of political power.

The lowest level of local politics is the village (köy), which is however highly dependent on the provincial administration in organisational and financial matters.[4] The village administration is headed by the muhtar who makes its decisions in cooperation with the council of elders. They are responsible for minor projects which can be realized through small financial contributions by the villagers (salma) and their united workforce (imece). Larger projects are being realized by the provincial administrations and it may be assumed that the village will one day be completely erased as an administrative level as a consequence of the increasing urbanization of Turkey.

A common point among all levels is their insufficient financial situation, which means that some of the legally prescribed tasks cannot be performed entirely. It should be noted though that significant differences exist regarding the financial sources of the different levels of local government.[5] In the case of municipalities and greater municipalities it can also make a difference whether they are run by a political party different from the one ruling at national level (coalitions are not possible at the local level). In this case the government may withhold important investments, implement strategic projects in other areas or make loan taking more challenging.[6] A second problem is the unclear distribution of competences as well as duplication between different levels. As a result, some, especially cost-intensive tasks (e.g. health) are not always executed properly whereas other, low-cost but visible tasks (like public gardening) are carried out simultaneously by different levels. Both the insufficient financial situation as well as the duplicity of tasks area result of the historical development of municipalism in Turkey. The following overview aims to clarify the political interests that influenced the respective municipal reorganization and amendments of competences.

First Steps towards Municipalism in the Ottoman Empire

The first municipalities were introduced by way of trial in the Istanbul districts of Beyoğlu and Galata in 1857, before they were planned to be expanded to the whole Ottoman Empire (Lafi, 2003: 189-190; Sahara, 2011: 30).[7] As the ‘test municipalities’ proved to be quite successful, a municipal administration regulation (Dersaadet Idare i-Belediye Nizamnamesi) was passed in 1868 to introduce thirteen additional municipalities in Istanbul. However their introduction was difficult and they never functioned as properly as the first two did. Municipalities were also introduced in some provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless the introduction of the belediye system in the Ottoman Empire was a rather singular phenomenon.[8] The Ottoman Empire was a centralist state and a class of institutionalized local authorities did not exist. The introduction of a belediye system can therefore also be understood as an attempt of the Ottoman palace to gain stronger influence on non-institutionalized local entities that so far had been quite autonomous from the palace’s control (Çelik, 1984:43). Other interpretations for the move towards a municipal system are facilitation of tax collection, pressure of European powers, and decentralization of political power in the provinces in order to guarantee their contentment and to prevent their secession. [9] This division of society within centre and periphery as described by Şerif Mardin continued even after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 when an entirely new municipal system was introduced (Mardin, 1973).[10]

Lack of Will for De-Centralization after the Founding of the Republic

After the foundation of the Turkish Republic the periphery was perceived as a potential source of conflict and was counteracted by strict centralist administrative measures. The level of the municipality had, above all, the function of controlling the periphery and maintaining state power. The provinces (il) with their newly designed borders did not respect the existing ethnic, religious or cultural entities but rather aimed at taking them out of the influence of traditional authorities such as ethnic or religious leaders.[11] Soon it became apparent that such a tight, centralist control was of only little practicability. A first step towards the decentralization of political power was the nationwide system of municipalities that was introduced with Law 1580 in 1930. The cities, as a prolonged arm of the government were to press ahead with the “modernisation“ of the country and were given limited competences as for example with regard to primary school education (Massicard and Bayraktar, 2009). The report on the adoption process of the Law exemplifies the contradicting expectations that were set in it:

“Experience had shown that, be it in Istanbul or another region, municipal governments need to be strengthened. In order to free our municipalities from their miserable and ruinous condition it is both a social as also an economic necessity to bring the municipalities’ power to a standard that is comparable to the developed countries. But even if we give importance to this necessity, we should not lose sight of another socio-economy obligation, namely to keep the municipal governments under the control of the state. The danger of anarchy may only be prevented if with an extension of municipal authority also the central control of those is extended parallel (cited in Aytaç, 1990: 91, English translation by author).”

The quote exemplifies that the amendment was not meant as an energetic push for further democratization but rather allowed only for so much decentralization as was deemed absolutely necessary, as the fear of a loss of control of local authorities was too big. It took more than thirty years until the Constitution of 1961 (Articles 112 and 116) required further decentralization of political power, which however may be understood as pure lip service as it was never transferred into national law (Bayraktar, 2007:27). Only the election of the mayor was subject to change: whereas formerly he had been elected among and by the members of the town council and required the approval of the central government, as of 1963 he could be elected directly by the citizens (Bayraktar, 2007: 27; Açıkel and Balcı, 2009: 92, 96, 99).[12]

The change towards strengthening local democracy was due to the considerable migration within Turkey that created completely new social conditions and forced politicians to react (Erder and İncioğlu, 2008: 8-10; Sengül, 2005: 81-82).[13] The most visible expression of this uncontrolled urbanization was the emergence of gecekondu neighbourhoods.[14] Whereas politicians ignored this urban lower class at first, they soon began to court it as a constantly growing important group of votes by promising them recognition of their real estate rights or access to water, gas and electricity. After winning the local elections in 1973 (most importantly in big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir), the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Republican Peoples Party) which at that time pursued a leftist program, began to answer the needs of city migrants (Sengül, 2005: 84). These municipalities asked the central government for an amendment of competences to address urban challenges with regard to infrastructure, public housing or transportation. This soon resulted in the movement of ‘New Municipalism’ (yeni belediyecilik anlayışı / toplumcu belediyecelik). The associated municipalities organized the production and sale of products such as bread to ensure low, stable prices by a municipal adjustment of demand and supply (Finkel and Sirman, 1990: 191).[15] Nevertheless, these efforts to ‘reinterpret municipalism’ were brought to an abrupt end by the military coup of 1980.

Far-Reaching Change as a Result of Neo-Liberal Turn

Only few years later Turkey experienced an unprecedented wave of decentralization, when a new level of local government was established: the büyükşehir belediyesi (greater municipality).[16] This was required by the 1982 Constitution and was introduced and further defined by Law 3030 in 1984. The creation of the greater municipalities aimed at solving urban problems which posed too big a challenge for single municipalities, as well as re-binding the city municipalities stronger to governmental structures after their ‘liberal period’ in the 1970s (Heper 1987: 1-3; Marcou, 2006: 25).

The 1980s in Turkey- like in a number of other countries -were years of neo-liberalism. Public spending was cut and local authorities were called on to work more independently and efficiently. Adopting management and administration procedures from the private sector were regarded as a magic solution. Another measure was the privatization of public property and some municipal services as well as a closer cooperation with private companies (Buğra, 2003; Kutlu, 2007: 263-264). Thus, public services were privatized and public enterprises were founded (Bayraktar, 2007: 38).[17] Law 3030 was an important turning point for municipal development as it established the greater municipalities as influential agents with economic power at a time when cities (especially the aspects of urban infrastructure and construction) became interesting for investors. Due to this law, greater municipalities gained far-reaching competences with regard to urban development, most important of which was the development and adoption of investment plans. Urban development and growth, not urban service provision became the main aim for many mayors and was often seen as indicator of their success. It should be noted however that this development was not particular to Turkey but that the turn towards ‘urban growth’ occurred in many countries as a side-effect of liberalization (Logan and Molotch, 1987).

Moreover, the role of the mayor changed from ‘administrator’ to ’manager’. In accordance with his rising influence on the local economy and internal power, his role in the town council was strengthened. With regard to internal structures he obtained the right to audit all decisions of the city council and the municipal councils and refer these back for further revision (councils can only maintain their decisions with a 2/3 majority). The council is led by the mayor and consists of the municipality mayors and 1/5 of the members of the district (belediye) councils (Bayraktar, 2007: 44, 49-50). The mayor is entitled to determine the agenda of the council meetings, to preside it and to transfer duties from greater municipalities to municipalities or vice versa. As a result, Law 3030 did not necessarily lead to a strengthening of municipal units but rather created new, hegemonic centres which were represented by the mayor.

Many developments criticized today and described as endemic to the AKP-era such as uncontrolled urban growth, radical change of land use plans, corrupt relations between mayors and urban developers actually started in the 1980s. Additionally, the role of cities began to change: not only ‘global cities’ (Sassen 1991) like Istanbul, but increasingly also smaller cities became under pressure to develop a marketable brand (‘marka şehir’) to attract investment, tourists and creative minds. This further economization of urban life together with agricultural transformations, a violent conflict in Kurdish regions and a decline of formal employment led to increasing social differences that were often (especially after the extinction of many leftist solidarity groups due to the coup) absorbed by Islamist welfare associations and foundations (Tuğal, 2009). They proved to be the backbone of the Islamist Refah Partisi (RP, Welfare party) and the beginning of ‘muhafazakar belediyecilik’ (conservative municipalism) in Turkey.

The Origin of the AKP in Local Politics

The 1990s were the decade of impressive municipal successes of the RP, one of the predecessors of the AKP. Not only Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, previous mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998) and today Turkey’s prime minister, but also other party officials began their political career in the RP. As prime minister, Erdoğan trusts the expertise of the same people as when he was a mayor, his early fellow campaigners consist of, for example, Mehmet Ali Şahin, Binali Yıldırım or Erdoğan Bayraktar (Açikel and Balci, 2009: 109).[18] It might be argued that the strong municipal conditioning of many AKP officials led to a specific political style, e.g. as ‘pragmatists’ towards the type of ‘bureaucrats’, as CHP politicians are sometimes described deprecatingly. Açikel and Balcı argue that Erdoğan has kept the habits of a mayor even after he became prime minister:

Erdoğan too, like other previous metropolitan mayors, embraced the discourse of “turning Turkey into a construction site” and “a globally rising free trade zone“. But as a prime minister he further developed the projects of gentrification of slums and production of houses for middle and lower classes, infrastructural investments such as extending the intercity motorways and renewing railway infrastructures of metropolises and intercity rails as well as finding quick solutions to water-needy municipalities. […] Even these few examples are enough to show how Erdoğan built his governance repertoire on his mayoral experience and perceived Istanbul as a small-scale model of Turkey where infrastructural and social problems are more or less the same (Açıkel and Balcı, 2009: 92, 96)”[19]

The evaluation is shared by many AKP local staff which repeatedly made remarks about CHP municipalities, which were run by ‘clock-watching bureaucrats’, lacking the commitment and (economic) spirit of AKP municipalities.[20]

But the RP which gained power for the first time in the local elections in 1994 with a manifesto entitled adil düzen (just order) also influenced today’s AKP’s understanding of municipalism.[21] It is surprising that the RP, in spite of its major municipal electoral successes, never developed a specifically municipal program (Massicard, 2009). Its main legacy with regard to local politics may rather be seen in the balance of neoliberal national politics with private welfare programs coordinated by the municipality. But as the party was permanently endangered of being closed down, the RP advocated a more general decentralization of political power. The political centre saw its influence in politics and society endangered by the RP’s success, a notion which resulted in the Coup by memorandum in 1997 and banning of the party in 1998 by a decision of the constitutional court. The experience of a party ban was not new to the members of the RP, many of them had already been members of the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi) which was banned in 1971 or the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi), which was banned in 1980. As a consequence of these negative experiences, the RP was deeply sceptical towards the ‘agents of the center’ (i.e. the judiciary and bureaucracy) and advocated a stronger decentralization of political power (Joppien, 2011: 71-75). Against this background also the AKP, especially in the early days of its existence, favoured less state and stronger local self-government.[22]

But the attempts of decentralization by the AKP should not be seen only in the context of mistrust of the ’secular forces’ such as bureaucracy, justice and military, but are also related to the country`s efforts to join the European Union.[23]The European Charter of Local Self-Government (Charte européenne de l’autonomie locale) was adopted on 15. October 1985.[24] It obliged signatory states to assure the political, administrative and financial autonomy of its communities. The Charter does not reflect a model of local self-government: it is rather a codification of basic principles for a democratic local government system. As a consequence, very different systems of local self-government may comply with the Charter. The aim of the Charter is to introduce binding standards in European countries to ensure the protection of local public authorities and possibilities of local political participation. Important in this context is also the ‘Framework Convention’ and two additional protocols. With regard to potential EU-accession candidates, compliance with these regulations is a requirement for accession. Turkey has ratified the Charter on the 9th of December 1992 (but with significant reservations). Turkey has also ratified the Framework Convention on Cross-border Cooperation between Local Authorities on the 11th of July 2001, but did not ratify the First Protocol (on cross-border bodies of local authorities) and the Second Protocol (inter-territorial cooperation, e.g. beyond neighbour local authorities).[25]

As a legal framework of reference, the Charter influences the new legislation on local government in the new EU Member States, as well as in Turkey. The AKP added the aim to reform municipal law to its 2002 ‘Urgent Action Plan’ which was to speed up Turkey`s EU accession. In 2004, parliament adopted a reform of municipal law but this was vetoed by then president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a firm Kemalist. Especially Kemalist and ultra-national groups in Turkey opposed the AKP’s municipal reform efforts, as they perceived them as a threat to one of the founding principles of the constitution, namely the indivisibility of the country.[26] The demand by the EU for stronger political and financial autonomy of local authorities is -especially in the light of the Kurdish question-seen as problematic. The adoption of the reform became possible in July 2005 after several articles on political decentralization were excluded and the law mainly touched upon administrative aspects.[27]

Main Reform Packages in 2004 and 2005

The legal reforms in 2004 and 2005 were the first successful essential moves towards a decentralization of political power in Turkey. The main elements of the reform were Law 5216 (July 2004 on büyüksehir belediyesi) and Law 5393 (July 2005 on belediye).[28] With regard to both laws it was considered especially positive that they led to bigger financial autonomy of the municipal units (Law 5216, Article 25 and Law 5393, Article 62). The previous practice of budget approval by the province governor (an organ of the central government) was abolished (Parlak, Sobacı and Ökmen, 2008: 44). On the other hand, this also meant less control of possible wrong-doings of municipalities as the auditing of projects pursued by the municipality and their financing by a higher administrative organ was abolished.[29] Also, the previous specification of municipal tasks in fixed lists of the belediye-level was given up in favor of a flexible list-system that now enabled the municipalities to react on changing economic or social circumstances at short notice.[30] In practise, this meant a further strengthening of the economic power of the cities and allowed for more autonomy from governmental control. Moreover, the greater municipalities obtained far-reaching flexibility with regard to hiring decisions under Law 5216 (Article 21). City councils could now abolish, combine or establish municipal departments, whereas approval by the Ministry of the Interior was a prior prerequisite.[31]

Both municipalities and greater municipalities may employ staff with limited contracts as experts or for special projects at short notice. In this way, a lack of specialists is prevented. However, the new regulation also means a higher political dependency of the staff to the mayor. Clerks and experts are inclined to keep the future of their employment in mind and thus not disagree with him. In terms of structural changes, the position of the city council was strengthened against the organs of central government.[32] This also implies a further gain of power on the part of the mayor who presides over the council. Additionally, the strong economic involvement of the ‘new mayors’ is of great importance as an important part of their tasks is dedicated to investment plans, land use changes and developments of rent. As a result of the increasing interdependence of public and private interests in the area of investments, privatisation, contract placing or cooperation of public and private companies, the mayor becomes a ‘moderator’ whose political decisions not only serve the citizens as his ‘traditional clientele’ but increasingly also the interests of investors (Bayraktar, 2007: 13; Açikel and Balcı, 2009: 94).[33]As described previously, this development was not initiated by the AKP but already began in the 1980s with the introduction of the greater municipalities. However it seems reasonable to argue that the legal reforms by AKP in 2004/05 further pushed municipalism in an economic direction.

Additionally the büyüksehir belediyesi, which were authorised under Law 5393 to take-out national and international loans, began to act as investors in the urban space themselves (Açikel and Balcı, 2009: 106). Municipalities may offer services by transferring them either to private service providers or publicly owned companies (Belediye İktisadi Teşekkülleri – BİT). Jobs may now be ‘arranged’ in these companies which -because of their relation to the municipality- feel a certain obligation to employ staff suggested by the mayor. This legal situation opened up new ways of patronage, the ‘traditional’ ones (e.g. the appointment of followers to jobs in the municipality) have become much more difficult due to increased regulation imposed on Turkey by the IMF and the World Bank. Since 2002 the independent Kamu İhale Kurumu (Institution for Public Contracts) monitors the contracting of the majority of public contracts. Also the introduction of an approval test for public servants (KPSS) in 1999 made employments as a form of patronage much more difficult.

As a result of the factors described above, the popularity of the mayors increased significantly during the last years and they became figures of national prominence whose political style and success are discussed by the public. Examples in this regard are the mayors Kadir Topbaş (Istanbul), Yılmaz Büyükerşen (Eskişehir) or Melih Gökçek (Ankara) and candidates in the 2014 municipal elections such as Mustafa Sarıgül (CHP candidate for Istanbul) and Mansur Yavaş (CHP candidate for Ankara). In the model of local governance Turkish mayors were so far identified as ‘notables’.[34] Typical for Southern Europe, notables are strong local leaders acting in the context of weak municipal competences vis-à-vis the central government. However, Turkey has seen radical change in this regard over the last decade: today’s mayors are strong political actors in a strengthened local context. This altered role also affects the relations between the central government and the different levels of municipal government and contributes towards dissolution of traditional hierarchic structures. The mayor’s new role as an omnipresent figure and the importance of the people around him such as external advisors weaken the role of municipal organs (council, committee) or levels within the party hierarchy (e.g. local party president). Thus, with regard to influence and patronage two main representatives of political power exist in Turkey: locally the mayor, nationally the circle of party leadership. Although political power is decentralized by the strengthening of the mayor and the council, the central office of the ruling party de facto still has the power in its hands- at least in areas where it also supplies the greater municipality or municipality as Turkish parties are not only characterized by strong leaders but also by a striking absence of inner party democracy (Joppien, 2014).

Arguing against a common view in political science literature on decentralization, the experience of decentralization in contemporary Turkey does not necessarily mean more voice or participation of the people, nor more transparency of political processes. On the contrary, it has become much easier for the central government – at least in those municipalities where it is in power- to influence local politics. The key to this is the distribution of political power between a limited number of people as well as the central position of the mayor.

One may also ask whether the reforms (at least in part) represent an attempt by the AKP to solve the Kurdish question. Some Kurdish activists wish to establish an autonomous Kurdish region within the Turkish state whereas others aim at an independent Kurdish state. As discussed earlier, the Turkish Constitution does not allow for a federal system as described in the general principles of the Constitution. A general decentralization may, apart from the reasons mentioned above (EU accession, historic aversion against strong state, economic considerations) have also been influenced by the idea to partially solve the Kurdish Question without officially addressing it.

Recentralization of Power?

Law 6360 (November 2012) increased the number of greater municipalities in Turkey from sixteen to 30.[35] In the provinces concerned, the special provincial administrations (il özel idaresi) were abolished in favor of the greater municipalities. Nevertheless, Law 6360 foresees the introduction of ‘Departments of Monitoring Investment and Coordination’ under the auspices of the governor. The 2012 Progress Report prepared by the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs, summarizes their tasks as:

efficiently provide, monitor and coordinate the investment and services of the public institutions and organizations, coordinate and conduct the emergency calls, disasters and emergency aid services, provide the publicity of the province, provide and coordinate the investments which the central administration will make in province when required, provide the services of representation, ceremony, reward and protocol, and to guide and inspect the public institutions and organizations in the province (2012 Progress Report prepared byTurkish Ministry for EU Affairs: 23-24).”

The greater municipalities’ income increased from 5% to 6% of total tax revenues in their province as their duties increased due to their expansion of greater municipalities to the provincial level. The abolishment of the special provincial administrations was not a new idea for Prime Minister Erdoğan. Already in 1995, when he was mayor of Istanbul greater municipality, he claimed that the borders of the greater municipality should be expanded to the borders of the province, an idea he tried to realize again in the 2003 (unsuccessful) law reforms (Arıkboğa, 2013: 66).

Additionally, the administrative level of village was abolished in the 30 provinces and villages within the borders of these new greater municipalities were legally turned into their neighborhoods (mahalle) (>16.000 villages). Moreover, municipalities with less than 2000 citizens and outside the borders of the 30 greater municipalities lost their municipal status and were downgraded to ‘village’.

Both critics and supporters agreed on the fact that greater municipalities had gained more responsibilities under Law 6360. However, opinions differ on the evaluation of the reform and the question whether this posed an actual recentralization (Arıkboğa, 2013: 71-72). The government argued that the new law would make local politics more effective and would improve services for the citizens. Additionally, centralization would reduce the costs for those services. Urban planning and administration would be optimized (‘no piecemeal’), would become situated closer to the citizens and would therefore positively influence good governance, corruption prevention and participation. The Progress Report prepared by the Turkish Ministry of EU Affairs in December 2013 for example evaluates the legal changes as such:

“[…] metropolitan borders have been revised so as to ensure the effective and productive provision of public services which aims to enhance democracy at the local level, increase efficiency in municipal services and improve provision of services by municipalities. In this scope, the responsibilities and duties of metropolitan municipalities have been extended to include the administrative borders of the province and the financial resources of the metropolitan municipalities have increased. Furthermore, special administrations in cities have been abolished and the duties of the provincial special administrations relating to local services have been transferred to municipalities. Furthermore, in 11 provinces with metropolitan municipalities in the scope of this law, villages and small towns are transformed into neighbourhoods. Through these amendments, an effective structure in local administration and an enhanced local democracy is pursued (Progress Report prepared by Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs, 2013: 16).”

Critics argue that greater municipalities currently do not possess the necessary personal, organizational and financial capacities to handle these new responsibilities. For Konya, the largest province covers more than 41.000 km2, which means that the greater municipality is responsible for areas more than 200 km far away from its head-office. Eskişehir CHP deputy Süheyl Batum criticizes the new regulation as follows: “Just imagine, you live in a neighborhood 150km away from Eskişehir- and now you need to come to Eskişehir to get permission from Yılmaz Büyükerşen for your well or to change something little on the street.”[36] Another criticism points out that municipalities would lack important competences with regard to agriculture, livestock breeding (Karasu, 2013).

One may also wonder whether the subordination of villages under municipalities could result in the disappearing of the distinct character of villages and regions. Instead of preserving local peculiarities, a further ‘cultural homogenization’ of Turkey would be pushed forward. Supporters of the Law argue that the strengthened position of the mayor who now not only presides over the greater municipality but over the whole province as well, would mean a strengthening of local autonomy and self-government. It may be criticized though that strengthening the mayor continues an unhealthy development that started with the introduction of greater municipalities in 1984 and was continued under Law 5216 (July 2004). The mayor’s role as an omnipresent figure and the importance of the people around him such as external advisors weaken the role of municipal organs (council, committee) or levels within the party hierarchy (e.g. local party president). Thus a strengthened mayor should not be equated a priori with higher or ‘better’ citizen participation.

Moreover, critics also argue that Law 6360 would disentitle local institutions of their right to local self-administration. The central administration (merkezden yönetim) would be further strengthened in its position vis-à-vis the local administration (yerinden yönetim). Furthermore, opponents argue that the Law was not developed in cooperation with local institutions but prepared ‘behind close doors’ instead and therefore does not take into account the needs of municipalism.[37] Finally, with regard to the local elections of March 2014 it was argued that the Law favors the ruling party, the AKP. As the rural population might be more inclined to vote conservative (AKP), the Law can be regarded as a chance for the AKP to also win greater municipalities (now being responsible for the whole province) such as Eskişehir and Antalya where they were previously in opposition (Deveci, 2013). However, the election results of March 2014 show mixed results. Whereas Izmir and Eskişehir for example are still ruled by the opposition party CHP, Antalya on the other hand was won by the AKP.

With very strong criticisms by municipal staff, academics and commentators alike one may only speculate on the AKP’s motivations behind introducing Law 6360. It seems plausible that the party’s shift towards recentralization may have been the fact that cities such as Istanbul or Ankara are getting saturated with construction. The inclusion of rural areas into the greater municipality administration opens new markets for urban development. The replacement of the Special Provincial Administrations (il özel idaresi) with ‘Departments of Monitoring Investment and Coordination’ point indeed towards economic motives. In times of global economic crisis domestic demand is more important than ever to keep the economy running, and a stable economic system is one of AKP’s main reasons for electoral success (Öniş, 2012). Moreover the AKP’s municipal approach is much more influenced by the idea of service provision (hizmet) than by questions of improving citizen participation or higher transparency of political processes. The quote “[…] metropolitan borders have been revised so as to ensure the effective and productive provision of public services which aims to enhance democracy at the local level, increase efficiency in municipal services and improve provision of services by municipalities” from the 2013 Progress Report prepared by Turkey underlines this evaluation. As the quote exemplifies, citizens’ ‘satisfaction’ (not participation) is equated with democratization. Although the 2012 Progress Report by Turkey  states that the country continues the alignment process with the European Charter of Local Self-Government with Law 6360 (2012 Progress Report Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs: 23-24), the Law is interpreted as a step back with regard to decentralization. The general decrease of ‘EU-enthusiasm’ among the public and in political circles may have made the party more indifferent to the main principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government.


Turkey is characterized by a centralist tradition and a lack of ‘trust’ towards the periphery. This in turn prevented strong local governments from coming into being. The far-reaching reforms of 2004 and 2005 (on büyükşehir belediyesi and belediye) are exceptions in this regard. With both laws the AKP strengthened the role of municipalities and their mayors’ vis-à-vis the central government. At the same time, the AKP actively continues the neo-liberal approach of the 1980s and fosters the country`s biggest cities as powers in their own right with immense economic influence. Due to their new role as investors, renters or shareholders became increasingly independent from the financial allocations of the central government.  With regard to the role of municipalities and the mayor in particular, a change of tasks from ‘administrator’ to ‘manager’ and ‘financial actor’ cannot only be seen in a positive light. Citizens are primarily seen as customers and the primary focus is on their ‘satisfaction’, not necessarily their ‘participation’. In spite of further decentralization, the possibilities of citizen participation as well as transparency of political processes have not improved. The 2004, 2005 as well as the 2012 law-reforms led to a strengthening of local authority at first sight. A closer analysis though reveals that these reforms fit the centralist tradition of the Turkish state. It was shown that Law 6360 further strengthens the already strong greater municipalities at the expense of institutions closer to the citizens and would allow for more immediate forms of participation. For this reason it seems plausible to argue that decentralization cannot naturally be equated with democratization. The question of how power is decentralized, to whom and why is much more important. It may be concluded that decentralization in the Turkish case mainly serves economic, not pluralist aims with a reinforcing of private sector orientation in mind.

Charlotte Joppien, PhD Candidate, Macquarie University, Sydney and Visiting Scholar Orient Institut

Please cite this publication as follows:

Joppien C. (September, 2014), “’Civic Participation’ or ‘Customer Satisfaction’? Waves of Centralization, Decentralization and Recentralization from the Ottoman Empire until Today”, Vol. III, Issue 9, pp.54-76, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=6917)


Açikel, Fethi and Balcı, Sarp (2009) “Mayors as New Political Oligarchs/Magnets in Turkey. Patterns of Transition from Local Politics to National Politics and Vice Versa”, in Jean-Benoit Pilet, Pascal Delwit, Kristof Styvers, Herwig Reynaert (ed.), Local Political Leadership in Europe – Town Chief, City Boss or Loco President, Brügge, 91-114.

Arıkboğa, Erbay (2013) “Geçmişten Geleceğe Büyükşehir Belediye Modeli”, Yerel Politikalar, Vol. 3, 48-96.

Aytaç, Fethi (1990) “Belediye kanunu`nun oluşumu, uygulanması ve değişiklikler”, in Ankara Büyükşehir Belediyesi Metropol İmar A.S. (ed.), Türk belediyeciliğinde 60 yıl bildiri metinleri, Ankara, 86-106.

Bayraktar, Ulaş (2007a) “Turkish Municipalities: Reconsidering Local Democracy beyond Administrative Autonomy”, European Journal of Turkish Studies, http://ejts.revues.org/index1103.html, Last accessed 02.04.2012.

Bayraktar, Ulaş (2007b) „The Matrix of Citizen Participation. Leaders, Civil Society and Coalitions in Turkish Cities“, CINEFOGO Working Papers, Working Paper No. 3.

Buğra, Ayşe (2003) “The place of the Economy in Turkish Society”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 102, 453-470.

Çelik, Zeynep (1986) The Remaking of Istanbul. Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century, Seattle.

Deveci, Hıfzı (2013) “New Pursuits in Turkish Local Government”’ Vol. I, Issue 12, 34-40, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), (http://researchturkey.org/?p=2804, last accessed 30.12.2013).

Erder, Sema and İncioğlu, Nihal (2008) Türkiye’de Yerel Politikanın Yükselişi. Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi Örneği, 1984-2004.Istanbul.

Finkel, Andrew (1990) “Municipal Politics and the State in Contemporary Turkey”, in Andrew Finkel, Nükhet Sirman (ed.), Turkish State, Turkish Society, London/New York, 185-217.

Göymen, Korel (2006) Dynamics of Local Government in Turkey: Demise of the bureaucratic Ruling Tradition?,(http://research.sabanciuniv.edu/8872/, last accessed 02.04.2014).

Heper, Metin (1991) “Local Government in Turkey. With Special Reference to Metropolitan Municipalities”, in Joachim Jens Hesse (ed.), Local Government and Urban Affairs in International Perspective. Analyses of Twenty Western Industrialised Countries, Baden-Baden, 579-600.

Heper, Metin (1987) Democracy and Local Government, Beverley.

Joppien, Charlotte (2014) “Ohne Lider geht hier nichts”, in Klaus Kreiser, Raoul Motika, Udo Steinbach, Charlotte Joppien and Ludwig Schulz (ed.), Junge Perspektiven der Türkeiforschung in Deutschland, Vol. 1, Wiesbaden, 117-132.

Joppien, Charlotte (2011) Die türkische Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP). Eine Untersuchung des Programms `Muhafazakar Demokrasi`, Berlin.

Karasu, Mithat Arman (2013)“6360 Sayılı Büyükşehir Belediye Kanunu ve Olasi Etkileri  – Şanlıurfa Örneği”,Gazi University Journal of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Vol. 15 Issue 1, 123-139.

Kutlu, Önder (2007) “Local Government Tradition and Its Cultural, Social, and Political Bases. The Konya Model”, Critique, Vol. 16, Issue 3, 255-271.

Lafi, Nora (2003) “From Europe to Tripoli in Barbary, via Istanbul. Municipal Reforms in an Outpost of the Ottoman Empire Around 1870” in Joe Nasr, Mercedes Volait (ed.), Urbanism: Imported or Exported?, New York, 187–205.

Logan, John R. and Harvey L. Molotch (1987) Urban Fortunes. The Political Economy of Place, Berkeley.

Marcou, Gérard (2006) Local Administration Reform in Turkey. A Legal Appraisal Based on European Principles and Standards, Paris.

Mardin, Şerif (1973) “Centre-Periphery Relations. A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, Vol. 102, Issue 1, 169-190.

Massicard, Élise (2009) “L`islamisme turc à l`épreuve du pouvoir municipal. Production d`espaces, pratiques de gouvernement et gestion des sociétés locales”, Critique Internationale, Vol. 42, Issue 1, 21-38.

Massicard, Élise and Bayraktar,  Ulaş (2009) “La Décentralisation en Turquie”, Etude FASOPO/Agence française de développement actualisée pour publication, (http://www.ffem.net/jahia/webdav/site/afd/shared/PORTAILS/PAYS/TURQUIE/Fiches%20projets/FASOPO%20-%20rapport%20final%20(FR).pdf, last accessed 20.04.2014).

Massicard, Élise (2008) “Régionalisme impossible, régionalisation improbable. La gestion territoriale en Turquie à l´heure du rapprochement avec l`Union Européenne”, Revue d`études comparatives Est-Quest, Vol. 39, No. 3, 171-203.

Öniş, Ziya (2012) “The Triumph of Conservative Globalism: The Political Economy of the AKP Era”, Turkish Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2012.

Parlak, Bekir and Sobacı, M. Zahid and Ökmen, Mustafa (2008) „The Evaluation of Restructured Local Governments in Turkey within the Context of the European Charter on Local Self-Government“, Ankara Law Review, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 23-52.

Pilet, Jean-Benoit and Delwit, Pascal; Styvers, Kristof; Reynaert, Herwig (2009) “The Quasi-Presidentalisation of Local Political Systems. Causes and Consequences”, in Pilet, Delwit,  Styvers, Reynaert (ed.), Local Political Leadership in Europe – Town Chief, City Boss or Loco President, Brügge, 397-406.

Sahara, Tetsuya (2011) “The Ottoman Council and the Beginning of the Modernisation of Urban Space in the Balkans” in Freitag, Ulrike (ed.), The City in the Ottoman Empire, London/New York, 26–50.

Sassen, Saskia (1991) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton.

Sengül, Tarik H. (2005) „Über den Urbanisierungsprozess in der Türkei“, in Orhan Esen, Stephan Lanz (ed.), Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin, 79-91.

Tuğal, Cihan (2009), Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, Stanford.

2012 Progress Report by Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs. December 2012.

2013 Progress Report by Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs. December 2013.


[1]Up to legislative reform in 2005 a population of 2 000 was sufficient.

[2]Law 3030, 1984. The requirement for this status is a population of at least 750 000. Previously there were 16 büyüksehir belediyesi inTurkey(Adana, Ankara, Antalya, Bursa, Diyarbakir, Erzurum, Eskişehir, Gaziantep, Mersin, Istanbul, Izmir, Kayseri, Kocaeli, Konya, Sakarya, Samsun).

[3] 6. December 2023. 28489  Sayili Resmi Gazete.

[4]Law 442, 1924. A settlement with at least 150 inhabitants is defined as a village.

[5]In comparison the villages have the worst position; their financial resources are salma (contributions by the villagers), income from rent, loan as well as indirect funding of projects at the village scale by the provinces.   The provinces receive 1,15% of the national tax revenue, income from rent, sale and investment, service fees and loans of the government. The büyükşehir  belediyesi received 5% of the total tax revenue in their province Until the law reform 2012, now 6%), 30% of the income from parking fees and 50% of the taxes of horse race as well as income from rent, sale and investment. Additionally they may apply for national and international loans. The belediye receive 2,85% of the national tax revenue and may apply for national and international loans. Additionally they may ask for extra payment from the affected property owners for site utilization. Furthermore they receive fees for services as well as certain taxes (butchers tax, fire insurance tax). It should be noted that these taxes are not dynamic and have been adjusted in 1992 and 2004. As a result the costs of collecting the taxes are higher than the income resulting from it.

[6] Interviews with mayors and municipal staff, Eskişehir 2013.

[7]The first municipality was established due to a decision of the High Reform Council (Majlis-i Ali-i Tanzîmāt) in 1854 to introduce a municipal commission. The vast majority of the council belonged to minorities and were French, Greeks, Armenians or Jews; only very few were Muslim Turks. The Commission was instructed to prepare a report on European city organisation and possible measures for a reform of its Ottoman counterpart.

After several years of discussion it was decided to introduce municipalities in only a restricted area in Istanbul, the neighbourhoods of Beyoğlu und Galata, before being transferred to the whole Ottoman Empire. Lafi, Nora. “From Europe to Tripoli in Barbary, via Istanbul.  Municipal Reforms in an Outpost of the Ottoman Empire Around 1870” in Joe Nasr, Mercedes Volait (ed.), Urbanism: Imported or Exported? (New York 2003) 187–205, 189-190. Tetsuya Sahara, “The Ottoman Council and the Beginning of the Modernisation of Urban Space in the Balkans” in Ulrike Freitag (ed.), The City in the Ottoman Empire (London/New York 2011), 26–50, 30.

[8]Regarding the introduction of the belediye system in selected districts in the ottoman provinces see Sahara (2011) 26-50 on Bulgaria and Lafi (2003) 187-205 on the Eastern Mediterranean, especially Tripoli.

[9] Other interpretations are: facilitation of tax collection, pressure of European powers, and decentralisation of political power in the provinces in order to guarantee their contentment and to prevent their secession.

[10]The Turkish sociologist Şerif  Mardin uses the term centre to describe the state, the term periphery to describe the populace. Mardin argues, the successful integration of the periphery (nobility, bourgeoisie, craftsmen, workers etc.) into the centre would be a phenomenon of western states being grounded in the autonomy of the cities, trade, and the estates of the realm. Through a process of mutual confrontation the periphery became acknowledged and integrated into the centre step-by-step.

[11]Provinces exist in Turkey since 1913, but have not been introduced by a specific law.

[12]Law 307, 1963. Prior to the legislative reform in 1963 the mayor was elected by the town council.

[13]Rural Exodus started in Turkey in the 1950s when the Menderes government (with the financial support of the Marshall plan) began to modernise the Turkish agriculture.  This resulted in a population surplus and a better infrastructural connection of rural areas which led to a stronger migration to the bigger cities within Turkey.

[14]The term gecekondu describes houses that are (illegally) erected overnight on public land.

[15]The most „extreme“ form of „New Municipalism“ was the declaration of „liberated zones“ under the rule of the inhabitants (and not the state) as for example the small town Fatsa at the Black Sea or individual neighbourhoods within cities.

[16]These are complemented by subordinated district authorities (ilce belediyesi).

[17]Examples are İSKİ (water/sewerage Istanbul), ASKİ (water/sewerage Ankara), İGDAŞ (gas Istanbul), İZULAŞ (transport Izmir).

[18]Şahin was first mayor of the Fatih neighborhood in Istanbul, founding member of the AKP, from 2007-2009 minister of justice. Yıldırım was first director of Istanbul ferry transport company İDO, founding member of the AKP, with interruptions minister of transport since 2002.  Bayraktar was first director of Istanbul housing company, since 2011 minister of housing and as such also director of TOKİ, the national housing company.

[19]See also Élise Massicard, “Régionalisme impossible, régionalisation improbable. La gestion territoriale en Turquie à l´heure du rapprochement avec l`Union Européenne”, Revue d`études comparatives Est-Quest 39 (3/2008), 171-203, 187 ff.

[20] Interviews with municipal staff and party officials in Konya, Ankara and Eskişehir, April-November 2011 and January to December 2013.

[21] The adil düzen programme consisted of demands for the establishment of a welfare state, industrialisation and a stronger embracing of religion in politics and society. As a result, the RP argued, a more just society would emerge.

[22]It should be added that there were other attempts of decentralisation by liberal-right-wing parties which were not successful. See Massicard (2008), 187 ff.

[23]See European Charter on Local Self-Government (ECLSG) 1985, Stockholm.

[24] Previous to the charter a ‚Charter of municipal freedoms‘ (Charta der Gemeindefreiheiten) was adopted in 1953 in Versailles.

[25] Countries are free to decide to join all or some of the provisions of the Charter, however within the limits of the Charter itself (art.12 of the Charter). All paragraphs are considered individually as optional; countries are only invited to adhere to a minimum of paragraphs: at least 20 paragraphs of those of Art. 2 to 11, at least ten of these need to be selected from the paragraphs mentioned in Art 12, Paragraph 1.  Turkey is bound, according to its own declaration, by: Article 2 : constitutional and legal foundation of local self-government; Article 3 paragraphs 1 and 2: concept of local self-government; Article 4 paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 : Scope of local government; Article 5 : protection of local authority boundaries; Article 6 paragraph 2 : appropriate administrative structure and resources for the tasks of local authorities; Article 7 paragraphs 1 and 2: conditions under which responsibilities at local level are exercised; Article 8 paragraphs 1 and 2: administrative supervision of local authorities’ activities; Article 9 paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 5 and 8: financial resources of local authorities; Article 10 paragraph 1: local authorities’ right to associate (Marcou, 2006: 13-14).

[26]Regarding the discussion of the different drafts for the reform see Korel Göymen, Dynamics of Local Government in Turkey: Demise of the bureaucratic Ruling Tradition?,2006, Last accessed 02.04.2012 at http://research.sabanciuniv.edu/8872/, 14 ff.

[27]The status of municipal councils has been slightly improved by the law. They meet monthly and have better tools at hand to control the mayor who is stronger bound by certain requirements when developing investment plans. Bayraktar (2007), § 68.

[28]Another important change concerns the provinces; Law 5302 (22.02.2005), which may not be dealt with in more detail here.

[29]Though there is a financial audit by the national audit court this does only concern the validity of the balance, not questions of law or content. For more detail see Göymen, 2006,18.

[30]The fixed lists are still used at the büyükşehir belediyesi level. Göymen (2006), 45.

[31]The ‘permanent staff’ consists of the general secretary, the different departments and their directorates.

[32]The two laws define that decisions are taken by the municipal council and are then delivered to the mayor. He may send the decisions back to the council which has the right to outvote him with a 2/3 majority. The mayor has the option of calling on an administrative court within 10 days if he thinks the council’s decision is unlawful. The position of the town council has been strengthened by law 5393 as it defines the conditions for a dissolving of the council more tightly. Whereas a council might have been dissolved for discussing topics without its scope of duty, it may now only be dissolved if it takes a decision on these. Law 5216 on büyükşehir belediyesi does not contain specific regulations on the dissolving, but it is argued, that the regulations of law 5393 (Article 30) should be applied on both belediye und büyükşehir belediyesi.

[33]It should be added that not only private enterprises but also other groups like religious brotherhoods, foundations or NGOs are trying to influence decisions in the municipality. A detailed analysis of these processes with regard to the cities Bursa and Mersin may be found at Ulaş Bayraktar, 2007 „The Matrix of Citizen Participation. Leaders, Civil Society and Coalitions in Turkish Cities“, CINEFOGO Working Papers, Working Paper No. 3.

[34]The model contrasts this with the type of “Primus-inter-pares”, which is described as typical for Northern Europe. It is characterised by a relatively weak local leadership position within a consensus oriented, collective government that has a strong position towards the central government. Jean-Benoit Pilet, Pascal Delwit, Kristof Styvers, Herwig Reynaert, “The Quasi-Presidentalisation of Local Political Systems. Causes and Consequences”, in Pilet, Delwit,  Styvers, Reynaert (ed.), Local Political Leadership in Europe – Town Chief, City Boss or Loco President (Brügge 2009), 397-406.

[35] Adana, Ankara, Antalya, Aydın, Balıkesir, Bursa, Denizli, Diyarbakır, Erzurum,  Eskişehir, Gaziantep, Hatay, Mersin, Istanbul, Izmir, Kayseri, Kocaeli, Konya, Malatya, Manisa, Kahramanmaraş, Mardin, Muğla, Ordu, Sakarya, Samsun, Tekirdağ, Trabzon, Şanlıurfa, Van.

[36] Interview with CHP deputy Süheyl Batum, Eskişehir, 02.09.2013.

[37] Interviews with municipal mayors and staff in Konya and Eskişehir, 2013.



Loading Facebook Comments ...

One thought on “‘Civic Participation’ or ‘Customer Satisfaction’? Waves of Centralization, Decentralization and Recentralization from the Ottoman Empire until Today

  1. maurizio

    i like this.
    Since Turkey is a rapidly growing urban society (with more than 75% of its citizens live in the city)…….
    following analysis and conclusions


Leave a Reply to maurizio Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.