Street-level officials and everyday politics in Turkey

By Elise Massicard
Submitted to Session P5024 (Ethnographies of Everyday Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
Since becoming President of Turkey, Erdogan has -to general surprise— called to his palace to listen to speeches about general policy a hitherto largely neglected and frequently scorned figure, namely muhtars--low-level officials at the neighborhood or village level. Indeed, this apparent ‘margin’ of state is not peripheral, because this is often through them that citizens experience the state. Therefore, they allow a privileged analytical lens upon the everyday enactment of the state.
As elected minor officials, muhtars are at the crossroads between top-down and bottom-up dynamics. They can best be described as intermediaries between state and residents, whose mediating function works both ways round. Do they act as state agents, or on the contrary as relays for the interests of inhabitants? Since they are subject to state injunctions whilst at the same time dependent upon their constituents, they are caught up in complex and sometimes contradictory loyalties. This paper examines the ambivalent political effects of this way of governing from below. It is based on an in-depth empirical study of the way in which the muhtars actually carry out their role and their interactions with neighborhood dwellers. Qualitative fieldwork including semi-structured interviews and observations was conducted in five differentiated Istanbul neighborhoods between 2012 and 2014.
On the one hand, muhtars appear as amicable agents of the state who make the administrative practices more legible to the citizens by employing circuits of familiarity. In many ways, they facilitate the citizens’ relationship to the state and contribute to administrative socialization. This is especially the case for groups most distant to the administrative order - the ones who mostly resort to muhtars - while well-off or educated people tend to address bureaucratic institutions. However, the personalized relationships one can build with the muhtars also opens the way to bypassing the institutional order. Favors are not an exception but a common pattern of behavior of muhtars - and a common expectation of the residents. The widespread opinion that access to muhtars is not equal for all but may diverge according to political or ethnic cleavages helps de-neutralize the state order and fuels feelings of exclusion.
The study of everyday politics has mostly been located among the disenfranchised, as an anti-hegemonic practice per se. This paper analyzes everyday politics not as separated from, or opposed to legal politics, but in relationship with it, and shows that it may also have hegemonic effects.