Women’s representation across national and local office in Turkey

By Abdullah Aydogan, Melissa Marschall, and Marwa Shalaby, Rice University’s Baker Institute

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

Existing research on political representation in established democracies has shown that lower-level and less prestigious offices tend to be more open and accessible to women as well as other underrepresented groups (Diamond 1977; Sanbonmatsu 2002; Rule 1987; Welch and Karnig 1979, Vengroff et al. 2003). When it comes to transitioning democracies, however, much less is known. This is partly because research on the Middle East and other regions has focused almost exclusively on women’s representation at the national level. Indeed, due to the limited availability of data when it comes to gender representation at the local level, we know significantly less about who runs for and holds office, regardless of region or level of democracy.

In this memo, we bridge this gap in the literature by exploring the relationship between the level and importance (i.e. prestige) of office and women’s political representation. Turkey is an ideal case for investigating this relationship due to the multi-level structure of its electoral system. To be specific, it has three levels of local councils and three levels of mayoral positions. Additionally, Turkey provides an intriguing case, because it has been a pioneer in granting women political rights since the 1930s, yet currently ranks lower than many other Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries with regards to women’s representation in national parliaments. Indeed, while women’s political inclusion in the MENA region has surged over the past decade, Turkey only recently has witnessed a modest increase, due solely to policies introduced by the secular left-leaning parties.

To examine the relationship between female representation and the level of office, we use an extensive dataset on electoral candidates and winners in Turkey. We first compare female representation in national versus local legislatures, then analyze variations across local electoral offices. The final part of our analysis focuses on how the importance of the office – based on electoral geography as well as functional responsibilities – affects the distribution of female candidates and winners. Our data demonstrate two main findings. First, the percentage of female candidates and winners is systematically lower in local legislative offices compared to the national assembly. Second, the relationship between female candidacy in local elections and the importance of office is non-linear; specifically, female representation in local office is highest for mid-level offices and lower for both low and high-level offices.

Women’s Political Representation Across Levels of Office

Focusing on women and politics at the national level, existing studies on the MENA region have paid much attention to the effect of culture and conservative gender attitudes on women’s access to political office (Norris and Inglehart 2001; Fish 2002; Rizzo et al. 2007). Other studies have highlighted the impact of institutional mechanisms, such as electoral laws and quota systems (Abou-Zeid 2006; Darhour and Dahlerup 2013). Some research has also examined the role played by party ideology. These studies find that whereas parties with leftist ideologies are more likely to encourage women’s representation (Beckwith 1992; Reynolds 1999), parties with conservative ideologies tend to marginalize women in their party ranks by emphasizing women’s traditional roles within the family. Conservative parties are also less likely to adopt quota mechanisms than left-leaning parties (Şahin-Mencutek 2014). Finally, research has emphasized the effect of economic development and demographic characteristics, such as income, population characteristics, and unemployment rates on women’s success in the electoral realm (Tolunay 2014).

When it comes to the determinants of women’s representation in local politics, very little is known about the MENA region in general, and the Turkish case in particular. Regional studies have shown that local elections are generally viewed as more parochial and less important to the policymaking process (Tekeli 1981, 1991; Nanes 2015). Consistent with this view, previous work conducted in established democracies has suggested that lower-level and less prestigious offices are more open and accessible to women (Diamond 1977; Sanbonmatsu 2002; Rule 1987). According to this argument, female candidates gravitate toward less competitive political offices, which tend to have lower compensation, shorter terms and less prestige, because the entry barriers are lower and the likelihood of winning is greater. In most Western contexts, these offices tend to concentrate at the local level. To date, however, few studies have tested this argument empirically. Thus, it is not clear whether it applies to the MENA region or to the Turkish case.

Female Representation in Local versus National Legislative Office in Turkey

As a part of our larger project investigating the determinants of women’s candidacy and election in Turkish local politics, we explore in this section the relationship between the level of office and women’s representation in elected office. Using an original dataset of the winners and candidates in the last two local (2009 and 2014) and three national (2011, June 2015, and November 2015) elections,[1] we aim not only to systematically examine which offices female candidates in Turkey are more likely to seek and win, but also to empirically test the extent to which patterns of women’s candidacies and office-holding at the local level differ from those at the national level.

As previously noted, Turkey is an interesting case for the purpose of our study due to its multi-level system of governance. The most prestigious elected office, after the presidency, is a legislative position in the parliament, the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Currently, the Assembly has 550 seats that are occupied by the four major political parties: AKP (the governing party), CHP (center-left), MHP (right-wing nationalist), and BDP/HDP (left wing pro-Kurdish). When it comes to local governance, Turkey has a complex administrative structure. The highest local administrative division is based on the provinces. There are 81 provinces, 30 of which are designated as metropolitan municipalities. Furthermore, there are currently 919 district municipalities under the provinces: 519 belong to a metropolitan municipality, whereas the remaining 400 have no overarching municipal body. The lowest municipal unit is the sub-district municipality. Although many of its demographic characteristics are similar to those of villages, the sub-district is normally administered under a municipal authority (Ozcaglar, 1996). Currently, there are 397 sub-district municipalities. [2]

At each of the three levels of local government, there are elected mayors and councils.[3] Both national and local legislative offices are elected through a closed party-list, proportional representation system, while mayoral offices are elected through plurality rule. Our dataset includes information for 383,229 candidates from 25 political parties who competed for 61,531 elected offices.[4]

We begin our analysis by comparing the proportion of female candidates and winners across legislative offices. Figure 1 reports the percentage of female candidates by party for the national assembly versus the three local councils.[5] Overall, the data show that the rate of female candidacies in national elections is consistently higher than all the local legislative offices. The ruling AKP accounted for about 16 percent of the female candidates during the national elections versus 13 percent for those in the district council elections, 5 percent for those in province council elections, and 4 percent for those in sub-district council elections.

Figure 1. Percentage of Female Candidates in National versus Local Legislative Elections

shalaby_fig1Note: National elections held (2011, 2015); local elections (2009, 2014).

On the other hand, women made up more than 35 percent of the BDP/HDP’s parliamentary candidates, compared to about 20 percent of its district council candidates, and 9 percent of its province and sub-district council candidates. The BDP/HDP’s high representation in national elections can mainly be attributed to its recently enforced party quota. Results for the CHP and the MHP also show that the proportion of female candidates is higher in national elections than in local legislative elections. In terms of candidacy, local offices are not more accessible to female politicians and the percentage of female candidates is relatively lower in local versus national office.

When it comes to the winners of national versus local legislative elections, the picture is not much different. As the data in Figure 2 show, the percentage of female winners in national elections is almost equal to the percentage of female winners in district council elections for the MHP, CHP and AKP; however, there is about 15-percentage points gap between these two offices for the BDP/HDP. Furthermore, female representation in the provincial and sub-district councils is almost identical for all the parties and about 10 percentage points lower than female representation in the district councils. Hence, contrary to expectations, the proportion of female office holders is not higher in local legislatures compared to the national assembly.

Figure 2. Percentage of Female Winners for the National Assembly versus Local Councils

Female Representation in Local Legislature and Executives Offices

 Beyond simply comparing rates of female candidates and winners across parliamentary and local council elections, our research also examines the nature of female representation in all local offices in more detail. As presented in Table 1, the highest incidence of women candidates (15.3 percent) and winners (14.1 percent) was in the 2014 district council elections. Women were least represented in the 2009 sub-district council elections (3.9 percent of all candidates), and in the 2009 metropolitan mayoral elections, which had no female winners.

The data in Table 1 also reveal a striking difference between the percentage of female candidates and winners for some of the offices – namely, district mayors, provincial councils, and metropolitan mayors. In some cases, the percentage of female winners is less than half the percentage of female candidates. Our explanation for such difference is twofold. First, this difference can be attributed to the fact that the major parties, which account for the overwhelming majority of winners, tend to have lower shares of female candidates compared to smaller parties. For example, in 2009 the percentage of female provincial council candidates for the four major political parties was 6.68, whereas the overall percentage of female candidates was 10.06. Second, it may be due to differences in regard to how parties place female candidates on their lists. Parties may strategically place women higher or lower on their lists depending on their electoral prospects. In other work, we show that the AKP and MHP are more likely to place female candidates lower on their lists in districts where they are more likely to win, compared to districts dominated by leftist parties (Shalaby, Marschall and Aydogan 2016).


Office Importance and Women’s Political Representation in Local Office

To compare representation across different types and levels of local government more systematically, we create a measure of ‘office importance’. We define importance by the number of constituents represented by the office since this taps not only the complexity and prestige of the office, but also its electoral competiveness. It is simply the number of registered voters divided by the number of seats (or mayoral positions) for each office for the 2009 and 2014 local elections. Based on this measure, local offices are ranked from least to most important as follows: sub-district council, sub-district mayor, district council, provincial council, district mayor, and metropolitan mayor. 

To illustrate the relationship between office importance and female representation, we graph office importance (logged) by the average percentage of female candidates (Figure 3) and winners (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Percentage of Female Candidates by Local Office Importance

shalaby_fig3 Figure 3 indicates that the percentage of female candidates is highest for district councils, which ranks in the middle in terms of office importance. In the least important offices – sub-district councils and mayoralties – the percentage of female candidacies is the lowest. Finally, for the most important offices – district mayorships, provincial councils, and metropolitan mayorships – the proportion of female candidates is somewhere in the middle, ranging from 8 to 10 percent.

When we look at the percentage of female winners, the inverse U-shaped pattern is even more pronounced. As Figure 4 demonstrates, female candidates are elected at the highest rates in these mid-level importance district councils – about 12 percent – while all other offices have lower rates, ranging from 3 to 5 percent.

Figure 4. Percentage of Female Winners by Office Importance


There are a number of explanations for the patterns depicted in Figures 3 and 4. First, the low level of female representation in sub-district offices may be attributed to the demographic characteristics of these jurisdictions. Since sub-districts are akin to large villages (Ozcaglar 1996), they are more rural in nature and typically have lower levels of development and education compared to the larger districts. Gender roles also tend to be more traditional in these areas. We suspect that women are less likely to be recruited as candidates in sub-districts, and to face more electoral challenges when they are on the ballot for these offices.

Second, the low number of female candidates winning metropolitan mayoral elections can be attributed to the importance and the strong competition associated with these offices. While we observe more female candidates running in metropolitan mayoral elections, this is largely driven by the fact that smaller parties with already low probability of winning tend to nominate more women for these positions. Indeed, during the last two elections, small parties nominated 66 out of the 77 female candidates for the metropolitan mayoral offices. However, only in Eskisehir, a small party, (Demokratik Sol Parti, DSP) won a metropolitan mayoral office in the 2009 elections.

When it comes to explaining the curvilinear relationship in both figures, we believe that – in contrast to sub-districts – districts are more urbanized administrative units with higher levels of socio-economic development in which gender norms tend to be relatively more egalitarian. Furthermore, electoral competition for these offices is considerably less fierce compared to metropolitan and provincial offices, hence, these offices are more accessible to female politicians. Finally, the observed pattern for female nomination and winning in district councils is intriguing and worth further examination to untangle its underlying mechanisms. The authors are currently working on a project to better understand this puzzle.


In this memo, we explored patterns of female office-seeking and office-holding in Turkey and shed new empirical light on an aspect of representation that has heretofore received scant attention in the literature. Our results indicate that contrary to previous research, national legislative offices are more accessible to female politicians compared to local ones in the Turkish context. We also find a non-linear relationship between female representation and the importance of local offices.

Taken together, these findings have important implications for women’s political inclusion in Turkey. This analysis presents an alarming picture of the current state of women’s political representation in the country. Despite international and domestic pressure – especially from the European Union and women’s movements – to build a more inclusive political system, the past decade has not witnessed much improvement for women as political leaders. Women continue to be marginalized in politics, especially in less visible and prestigious offices.

Finally, given the current political situation in Turkey, especially in the aftermath of the failed coup, elites are more focused on the country’s security and stability, at the cost of advancing female representation. As in other parts of the world, women’s issues are often pushed aside amid heightened national threats or concerns, such as economic or security crises. Voices calling for increased women’s rights, including political rights, are often marginalized in the name of the national interest. If political elites, especially party leaders do not take the issue of women’s political inclusion seriously, women’s political representation will continue to drop as evidenced in the country’s latest parliamentary elections. 

[1]The gender of the candidates was coded using computer assisted automated coding technique combined with hand-coding method. The reliability of our coding is 96.29.

[2] The number of districts and sub-districts varied significantly across the last two local elections due to the recently enacted laws on local governance (e.g. Law#6360 approved on Nov 12th, 2012). We present here the most recent data obtained from the government source: https://www.e-icisleri.gov.tr/Anasayfa/MulkiIdariBolumleri.aspx

[3] Non-metropolitan provinces do not have a mayor, but they have a council.

[4]The entire dataset was obtained from the Turkish Higher Electoral Council (YSK) website. For his invaluable help on data gathering and processing, we are very grateful to Tayfun Tuna (Ph.D., Computer Science Department, University of Houston).

[5] The numbers for the national elections represent the average percentage of female candidates in the past three elections (2011, 2015-June, 2015-November) while the numbers for the local elections represent the average percentage of female candidates in the two last district council elections (2009, 2014)


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