By Tuncay Kayaoglu
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week described “mukhtars” – Turkey’s locally elected heads of villages and city neighborhoods – as the “first step for representation of the national will.”
In an address to hundreds of such local leaders at the presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan said they had a critical role in maintaining relations between various local authorities and addressing the needs of the people.
There are more than 50,000 mukhtars – only 600 are women – across Turkey. They are locally elected and receive only a small allowance for their services. The Ottoman Empire established the system for rural areas in the 1830s; the Turkish Republic kept the network and expanded it to the country’s cities in 1944, says Ramazan Ozunal, chairman of the Mukhtars’ Union.
“Originally, the system was established so that those local leaders could act between the state and people, much like a modern-day ombudsman,” Ozunal said.
Mukhtars still preserve the DNA of ombudsmen in today’s Turkey even if interaction between locals and mukhtars has become more limited.
A group of volunteers in Istanbul now are working on a web-based program, called “Muhit” – meaning ‘neighborhood’ – to repair this fraying link.
“We aim to establish a ‘notification network’ between locals and authorities by using mukhtars’ role in neighborhoods,” says Sera Tolgay, a 23-year-old member of the development group.
Mukhtars have various roles to play and are often tasked with compulsory duties for public health, education and military matters. They often address the demands of local residents but, as Tolgay notes, these elected people lack effective means to interact with their electoral base.
Not all mukhtars think there is a problem; “If anyone needs any assistance, they can reach me by telephone or come into my office,” says Nejdet Baykan, a 52-year-old mukhtar in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district.
In addition, local municipalities have established mechanisms to address daily problems encountered by locals in the city.
Although a person can direct his or her problem by calling the authorities or filling out a form on a municipality website this takes too much time, according to Tolgay.
Moreover, many locals are generally unaware of common problems in their small district and are unable to get together to raise an issue to the local authorities. “Many people do not spare the time to go to mukhtars to file a petition for specific problems. This program will ease that process,” Tolgay says.
The Muhit program allows users to relate their problems to mukhtars and even organize a small campaign for a particular problem, such as buildings parks. “So that mukhtars can prioritize those problems and raise those issues to higher authorities,” Tolgay says.
There will a web-based service and mobile application, Tolgay claims, adding that the interface will be user-friendly, meaning that locals or mukhtars will not find it difficult to operate.
Some mukhtars are uneasy about such services, believing that such programs will require extra spending.
Mukhtars do not receive a salary and pocket only a modest $350 monthly allowance, forcing many to have a regular job. Their revenues have shrunk in recent years due to the state’s decision to provide documents – such as residence permits – through online services.
Nejdet Baykan does not find the Muhit idea appealing, believing that it will cost more money.
Nevertheless, Tolgay claims some local authorities and leaders her group is in touch with view the service positively.
The group expects coding to finish next month. Following that, they will put the service in use on May or June across a limited area to detect possible glitches. Sponsored by the Community Volunteers’ Foundation, a well-known non-governmental organization in Turkey, Tolgay says the project is not inventing something new, just digitalizing an established system.
Erdogan, in last week’s address, praised the role of mukhtars in “unifying the country around common goals and objectives.”
To do that, local leaders should be aware of the problem in their areas and need to address them effectively.
This web-based program may be the first step in taking a tradition with its roots in the Ottoman period into the digital age.