New Pursuits in Turkish Local Government

New Pursuits in Turkish Local Government

Recent changes in local governments

Local government system, one of the most problematic areas of Turkish public administration, is once again occupying political agenda these days. A legislation[1] recently passed by the National Assembly under the majority rule of Justice and Development Party made (again) some changes on local government structure, hence sparked a new public debate.

It is possible to summarize the “not-so-new” features of this legislation the following way: 13 new “metropolitan cities” will be established in addition to the existing 16. “Special provincial administrations” and “townships” in 29 metropolitan cities will be disestablished. A total of 1575 town municipalities, 1016 in metropolitan cities and 559 in other cities, will cease to exist. The jurisdiction of all municipalities in metropolitan cities will be equalized to civil administration. Some sites will get connected to different municipal authorities and so on.

The only component of this legislation that we can call innovative is the creation of “investment monitoring coordination centers” in place of special administrations. The thing that worries people the most is the establishment of new metropolitan cities and the equalization of the metropolitan municipal boundaries to civil administration. Some think that this will serve the goals of “Kurdish separatists”, and divide the country into states; some opposition parties even argue that this is actually the ruling party’s objective. Abrupt changes in towns’ liaison to municipalities are perceived as efforts geared towards “winning some opposition municipalities in elections and receiving more votes in certain locations.”

Turkey’s fear

Every strong emphasis on local self-governance more or less creates concerns about national unity, albeit tacitly, especially in countries with traditionally strong unitary political systems. This concern is more profound in Turkey than in other European countries.

A closer look at the countries that have taken significant steps in local self-governance will reveal that countries that are “unitary” in real terms are not so many. The most notable examples are France and Turkey. Some other important examples are either federations or confederations (i.e., Germany, Russia, and Austria). The ones constitutionally defined as “unitary” demonstrate de facto federal features (i.e., Spain and England). Most of the unitary countries indeed house state-like entities and regions with varying special administrative status. As a result, while choosing exemplar countries for modifying local administration, these considerations need to be taken into account.

Turkey’s fear of local self-government feeds from the anxiety generated by the longstanding separatist movement in the Southeastern Anatolia; however, there are other reasons that remain in the background: “the monolith national borders” (The National Pact of 1920), deriving from the heavy centralist tradition inherited from the Ottoman Empire and a devastating independence war experience. Although one can rightfully criticize when these issues are put forward exaggeratedly, a complete ignorance of these reasons would be an equally inadequate evaluation of the situation.

How accurate is this fear?

Due to these 13 new metropolitan cities in addition to the existing 16 since 1984, can we infer that the country is drifting towards a federation? To answer this question, we need to closely examine the cities governed under “the state of emergency” during 1987-2002 due to widespread separatist movement. The most recent list includes only Mardin and Van among such cities; Diyarbakir is already a metropolitan city. Thus, we can see that only 3 out of these 29 metropolitan cities are Southeastern cities where separatist terrorism has been heavily concentrated.

We can evaluate whether these new metropolitan cities “really” deserve such status or not. These new cities are ranked among the top 30 in terms of population size; Kahramanmaras, Mardin, Sanliurfa and Van are placed among the top cities in terms of geographic size in spite of their socioeconomic status. One can argue that the metropolitan municipal bodies with low population density can have difficulties with distributing services to provincial borders; however, it is not appropriate to argue that the new metropolitan cities do not deserve such status.

Another reason for the fear that the latest reform is “a preparation for a federation” is the equalization of metropolitan provincial borders to civil administration. Because municipalities are organizing for densely populated areas, their service limits have always been smaller than civil administrations. There are areas within district and provincial administrative boundaries that are not covered by the municipal authority, and city or district governors execute these uncovered functions via city special administrations.

And now, 27 metropolitan cities will have the authority for all the cities in their jurisdiction (this has already been the case in Istanbul and Izmir). We need to note that this arrangement is due to widespread settlement spanning around these metropolitan cities. The distance between towns and communities in these cities almost vanished. As a result, it is an imperative for the metropolitan service areas to cover all city or district jurisdictions.

Furthermore, no matter how much the geographic size of their service area expands, local governments cannot assume central authorities (i.e., domestic security, education, etc.) without fundamental changes in Turkish Constitution, laws and regulations.

Is it right to disestablish villages and townships?

Regarding the disestablishment of 16,078 villages and townships, we can make the following points: Although villages are considered “local administration units” in Turkish literature, they function as de facto countryside branches of the central administration. Villages do not have the capacity to provide services and generate revenues; they cannot use any resources provided by the city and district governors. This approximates the role of village chief man to “an appointed civil servant” rather than “an elected local administrator.”

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s data, the number of 34,600 villages has been constantly changing because of rapid urbanization, immigration as a result of industrialization, expropriation of major infrastructure projects and evacuations due to terror.

Widespread human settlement has eliminated the distance between villages and townships and this is more notable in metropolitan cities. We can run into villages even in areas considered “city center.” Close integration of villages into cities, the removal of their legal personalities, and transformation into “neighborhoods” will enable inhabitants to easily access resources. However, we should not overlook the fact that some of their rights resulting from the “village” status will be lost. For example, protection of usage rights of uplands and rangelands that are assigned to villages’ legal personalities, as well as forestlands (although the legal reasoning claims the opposite) will not be easy. It is almost certain that the local government will soon take over these lands. Regarding townships, perhaps the only thing to say is: “why not are they completely abolished?”

Why are special administrations abolished?

Two reasons can be attributed to disestablishment of special administrations in 29 metropolitan cities: Primarily, the equalization of civil administration to the municipal boundaries, and debates about uselessness of these administrative units.

Special administrations, just like municipalities, are constructed for “regional communal services”; their duties are parallel as a result. They will now lose this function due to the metropolitan cities’ complete coverage of entire city jurisdiction.

Another reason for the disestablishment of special administrations in metropolitan cities concerns the debate about their uselessness. Effectiveness of and familiarity with special provincial administrations and city councils are quite weak; they do not have remarkable revenues other than appropriations from general budget tax revenues and allowances from special budgeted administration. The central government’s duties of infrastructure, maintenance, and restoration were also given to the special provincial administrations; the allowances were provided from the central government that indeed owns the investment. However, this initiative was not adequate to provide real functions for these units. These secondary tasks will now be performed by “investment monitoring coordination centers”. In light of arguments presented above, it is possible to argue that the abolishment of 29 city special administrations will create some problems in public services.

Should town municipalities be abolished?

It is questioned whether disestablishment of 1575 town municipalities, without the consent of their inhabitants, is compatible with local democracy and the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

That said it should not be assumed that this is the first time that town municipalities are abolished. At the end of 2003, a proposal to disestablish 340 towns –population sizes of which were below 2000- was vetoed by the President due to “timing”.[2] A similar operation was conducted in 2008;[3] 35 town municipalities were promoted to district municipalities, a total of 1102 towns were abolished and transformed into villages. However, Constitutional Court and High Election Board rendered a judgment that 836 of these towns still owned “municipality” characteristics, thus they could participate in the local elections on March 29th, 2009.

According to the Municipal Corporations Law No 5393, municipalities can be abolished under two conditions: First, the population goes below 2000; second, if their proximity to the city-district municipality to which they belong or another municipality with a population of 50,000 or more becomes closer than 5,000 meters. Either way, towns can only be disestablished by the Council of Ministers based on the proposal of the Ministry of Interior. When we look closely at the recent disestablishments, it is understood that 559 towns were abolished due to their population size, and 1016 of them due to their close proximity to the border of metropolitan (or a district) municipality (or even they are integrated).

Concerns about the effectiveness of town municipalities resemble the debates surrounding the special provincial administrations. Indeed, many town municipalities cannot provide fundamental services; their personnel, equipment, and revenue resources are scarce; they are not compatible with economies of scale. Up to this date, town municipalities’ resource capacity has never been adequate and sustainable.

Nevertheless, these bodies’ importance in terms of democratic participation is undeniable. The clauses of Municipal Corporations Law No 5393 that aim at strengthening local democracy, such as developing a sense of fellow townsmen, participating in decision making processes, and supporting for voluntary services, can only be achieved by the furthermost town municipalities. When it comes to town municipalities, however, it would be accurate to give the economies of scale secondary importance.

There were 2,950 municipalities in Turkey of 74 million (i.e., before 1,575 were disestablished), and 1,078 of these municipalities had a population size of around 2,000 (36.5%), 978 had between 2,000 and 5,000 (33%). The size of local organization in European countries that have similar administrative structures to Turkey’s is notable to illuminate the discussions taking place in Turkey: There are 36,569 active municipal bodies in France of 65.8 million (2011 census), and 70% of these have a population of below 1,000. There are 8,100 municipal bodies in Italy of 60.6 million (2011 census), and 23% of these have a population of below 1,000; 49% have population of between 1,000 and 5,000.[4] The situation in other large European countries is as follows: 60% of municipalities in Spain of 49 million (2008 census) have a population less than 1,000. There are 14,000 municipalities in Germany of 81.9 million (2011 numbers), and the population is over 10,000 in only 1,557 of these municipalities (2000 census).[5]

These examples demonstrate that the size of local organization in these countries is extremely small to compare against the ones in Turkey. As a result, it is hard to argue that the disestablishment of 1,575 municipalities in Turkey (according to Municipal Corporations Law) will serve the need to strengthen democratic participation.

Why is it necessary to change the neighborhoods’ administrative links?

Two of these most recent changes in the legislation are especially noticeable: some neighborhoods in Istanbul and Ankara will be separated from municipalities where they were registered, and assigned to some other municipalities. On top of it, this was not even in the draft bill proposed by the government; it was later added to the bill during the Grand National Assembly committee meetings and the General Assembly. Since the argument about these neighborhoods’ service requirements was not found adequate, the change was perceived as a “demographic operation to win the local elections.”

To investigate whether the purpose is really to gain voter advantage or not, we can subtract the total votes that these neighborhoods casted during the last local elections (29 Mart 2009) from their previous municipalities, and add them to their new district municipalities. In Ankara, the following picture emerges:[6]

The distribution of votes in 3 districts in Ankara in 2009 Local Elections





















The updated distribution of votes in these 3 districts based on calculation





















We can see that the change in registration of neighborhoods will redistribute approximately 30,000 votes in favor of the governing party. This major shift in votes could result in a change in mayoralty.[7] The resulting scenario is not as dramatic in other districts.

However, the change in neighborhoods’ administrative links has meanings other than voter advantage. 3 neighborhoods in Istanbul that are disconnected from Sisli and connected to Sariyer, especially Maslak, are hubs for business life. Duty and taxes that Sisli municipality collects from Maslak constitute an important place in the municipality’s revenue streams.

Regarding geographic proximity, mapping justifies the proposed changes both in Istanbul and Ankara. Nevertheless, the municipality-swap is clearly against the 5th article of the Charter of Local Self-Government, which reads, “local community needs to be consulted before any changes in local government borders.”

Last remark

Any political initiative concerning local governments invites long arguments and deep discussions, and as such, it should be considered normal because, first of all, local governments are “the cradle of democracy”; that is, they are the most appropriate channels for the local community to express their needs and concerns. In other respects, they are where locals’ genuine and immediate needs are met. Every proposal changing local government’s structure needs to take these considerations into account.

The goal of organized society and effective political participation might at times clash with the goal of efficient use of government budget; in that case, a preference in favor “participation” will generate positive outcomes for those in political power in the long run. It should be noted that political ethics necessitate acting in accordance with the overall tendency prevailing in the rest of the world, and the spirit of the international treaties.

Reforms which include tacit statements about electoral plans between the lines will only reduce people’s faith in such agendas, because political plans to gain a few more thousand of votes are much more fragile than public commonsense. At last, whether some of these reforms will benefit the society can only be decided after the implementation, which requires patience.

Hıfzı Deveci, Retired Member of the State Supervisory Council, Public Administration Specialist and Author

Please cite this publication as follows:

Deveci, Hıfzı (February, 2013), “New Pursuits in Turkish Local Government”, Vol. I, Issue 12, pp.34-40, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (

[1] Law no 6360 accepted on 12.11.2012 and published on Official Gazette issue no 28489 on 06.12.2012.

[2] Law no 5925. The President’s reasoning for veto is based on the Article 47 of the Constitution that prohibits the adoption of any changes in the laws on elections before one year from the next elections at the latest. In fact, the sooner local election was held on March 28th, 2004.

[3] Law no 5747 published on duplicated Official Gazette issue no 26824 on 22.03.2008.

[4] “Local Administrations in the World”, Ministry of Interior publications, Ankara 1999.

[5] www.citymayors/government/europe_mayors.html.

[6] Election Results, retrieved from High Election Board’s website at

[7] Political parties whose votes did not affect the results are not included in the evaluation.



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