Welcome to my website.

I am a PhD candidate at Harvard University Government Department, expecting to receive the degree in summer 2021. During the 2020-2021 academic year, I am a Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative.

My dissertation project explores the reasons behind the weak electoral appeal of secular-modernist parties in the Middle East after the popular uprisings of 2011-2013 and why they could not form a credible alternative to Islamist parties. I undertake a close case analysis of two large secular parties in the region, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party) in Turkey and Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), and exploit the subnational variation to test various hypotheses. I find that, unlike many conventional expectations, valence deficit and inability of secular parties to signal good governance credentials are among the main causes of secular disadvantage. The valence deficit stems from negative political selection and problems in organizational cohesion, i.e. inability of social networks within the party organization to cooperate effectively.

The data for this project comes from pre-election interviews, candidate and household surveys and post-election interviews in both countries. Data collection efforts were supported by Democracy International, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Institute for Quantitative Social Science and Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

My other current projects explore how parties and charities engage in and affect the quality of primary healthcare in Lebanon, the role of international organizations in poverty reduction programs for refugees, and why citizens support executive aggrandizement reforms in Turkey.

Here is an up-to-date CV.

Please feel free to contact me for inquiries related to my work at sasmaz@g.harvard.edu.


“Equity with Prejudice: International NGOs and Healthcare Delivery in Refugee Crises”
(with Melani Cammett)
Working paper available at SSRN.

Refugees often face prejudice in host countries. Does local resentment of refugees result in discrimination in access to social services? We explore the quality of care received by Syrian refugees and Lebanese nationals in Lebanese health facilities using data from original surveys in a nationally representative sample of primary health centers. Our results indicate no difference in the quality of care for Syrians and Lebanese. Instead, they suggest incentives from international organizations at both the organizational and individual levels, as well as perceived public health imperatives, may explain equitable treatment, despite evidence for prejudice against Syrians. The findings advance research on the politics of refugee crises and humanitarian response, illuminating the experience of everyday life for refugees.

Dissertation Project


This project brings a new perspective to a long-standing question in political science and Middle East studies: Why have secular-modernist parties remained weak in the aftermath of uprisings, despite their historical and organizational advantages? Predominant political science literature on the Middle East focuses almost exclusively on Islamist parties, and the few explanations derived from extant literature attribute the decline of secular parties to weak ideological support for secularism among the Middle Eastern public, the absence of institutional venues for secular actors to interact with the larger public, or elitism of leaders and activists in secular parties. Yet, by and large, these accounts have not been tested rigorously. Moreover, they do not explain how secular parties remain strong at some historical times and in some subnational areas but not in others.

I argue that the weakness of secular parties in the Middle East is largely the result of a “valence” problem, rather than an ideological mismatch or absence of mobilizing structures. Secular-modernist parties suffer from electoral underperformance when and where they lack trust of voters in their capability to solve problems and deliver socio-economic development. The valence deficit of secular parties has two main sources: First, these parties are characterized by intra-party competition and lack of organizational cohesion, i.e. a deficit in the capacity and willingness of party activists and candidates to collaborate and remain unified. Secondly, they cannot recruit and select competent candidates, who could have built good governance credentials for the party. Voters who witness in-party fighting and a cadre of politicians who seem incapable of solving socio-economic problems turn to alternative parties, mostly Islamists.

I demonstrate the effect of organizational cohesion on electoral strength with subnational analyses for two important secular-modernist parties, Nidaa Tounes and Republican People’s Party, in the most recent local elections in Tunisia and Turkey. In both countries, I conducted extensive pre-election interviews with central and local political elite, original and representative candidate surveys,[1] and additional post-election interviews in selected cities. Borrowing from organizational psychology and sociology, and building on earlier studies of organizational strength in political science, I measured the organizational cohesion of parties at the municipal level and show that it is significantly associated with election results. I substantiate my argument with data from post-election interviews and original household survey data on the potential causal linkages between these variables.

A second source of valence deficit of the old secular-modernist parties in the region is candidate quality: Secular parties cannot attract the most competent segments of their core constituency, urban professional middle classes, neither as party activists nor as candidates. To substantiate this argument, I provide a detailed a descriptive account of political selection pipeline of secular parties, bringing together household surveys, candidate surveys and candidate selection experiments with party officials. I then compare them to the political selection pipeline of Islamist parties, and demonstrate that secular parties end up with less qualified, less competent and less cooperation-spirited candidates.

Considering the characteristics of the voter base and core constituency of secular-modernist parties, the difficulties secular parties face to construct cohesive organizations and find competent candidates are puzzling. To explain this, I turn to macro-sociological processes: First, more competent segments of the core constituency of secular-modernist parties, which are derived from the urban professional middle classes, have been in a decades-long process of disengagement from party politics, in part because globalizing economic reforms have changed their life strategies and increased their exit options. Members of this social stratum have the professional skills and resources that could have built both organizational cohesion and governance credentials for secular political parties. Instead, they opted to seize opportunities within the private sector, employment in multi-national corporations, and emigration. Second, as state-builders, secular parties have historically nurtured distinct patronage distribution networks, which are in constant competition with each other on the basis of hometown, sect, or occasionally personal animosity between leaders. While these patronage networks ensure the survival of the party by incorporating an extensive network of local branches into the center, they give rise to constant intra-party struggles and push members of the urban professional middle classes further away from involvement. Thus, secular parties cannot build functional and reliable organizations that would have brought them electoral advantage.

[1] In Turkey, I also conducted an original household survey to test the mechanisms of my argument. In Tunisia, I have access to a large household survey which was conducted by a collaborating organization to which I was able to add modules of questions.



Navigating welfare regimes in divided societies: Diversity and the quality of service delivery in Lebanon” (with Melani Cammett), Governance, 2021 (Early View). 
Online Appendix / Supplementary Information
Data and Code

Targeting humanitarian aid using administrative data: model design and validation” (with O. Altindag, S.D. O’Connell, Z. Balcioglu, P. Cadoni, M. Jerneck, A. K. Foong), Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 148, January 2021.

Political context, organizational mission and the quality of social services: Insights from the Health Sector in Lebanon” (with Melani Cammett), World Development, Vol. 98, 2017.


Socio-political determinants of quality in social services

With Melani Cammett, we explore the determinants of quality in social welfare services. Social welfare services are increasingly being provided by diverse organizations, including religious charities, political parties, and secular NGOs. To explore how this organizational diversity affects quality, we collected original data from the Lebanese primary health care network in collaboration with 13 local research assistants. Questions we ask include: Does the quality vary across organizational types and, if yes, why? Which organizational missions attract more competent professionals? Do the sectarian organizations provide superior quality services to their co-ethnics? Which organizations provide equal or superior quality for most vulnerable groups, such as refugees?

  • “Equity with Prejudice: International NGOs and Healthcare Delivery in Refugee Crises” (with Melani Cammett) – Working paper available at SSRN
  • “Secular vs. religious advantage in providing quality health care” (with Melani Cammett)

Political organizations and behavior in the Middle East and North Africa

The extensive dataset we collected from the local election candidates in Tunisia’s first democratic local elections in 2018 allows us to answer a number of theoretically interesting questions.

  • “What men want: Politicians’ strategic response to gender quotas in Tunisia’s 2018 municipal elections,” (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark) – under review
  • “Political accountability in new democracies” (with Chantal Berman, Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark) – presented at MPSA 2019 [EGAP pre-analysis plan]
  • “Wings of the dove? Ideological factions and debate within Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist party” (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark)

With Daniel Ziblatt and Alper Yagci, we explore how voters respond to executive aggrandizement initiatives and why some voters change their institutional preferences based on who might win power.

  • “How do voters respond to assaults to checks and balances? Evidence from a survey experiment in Turkey” (with Alper Yagci and Daniel Ziblatt) – under review [EGAP pre-analysis plan]

In a collaborative project (with Sami Atallah of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies and Melani Cammett at Harvard University), I explore the determinants of youth political participation in Lebanon and Tunisia, with a particular focus on social identity. Data collection for this project is ongoing as of October 2020.

Institutional design of local governance

In 2014, Turkey undertook an uneven local governance reform in which the governance structures and processes changed for some villages (in 30 governorates) whereas it remained the same for other villages (51 governorates). We explore how this reform aiming to enhance efficiency of rural infrastructure provision affected various aspects of rural development and electoral politics.

  • “Electoral and governance outcomes of municipalization of rural governance” (with Esra Bakkalbasioglu, Tugba Bozcaga and Evren Aydogan) [EGAP pre-analysis plan]


  • Social Welfare in Developing Countries” (with Melani Cammett), in Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism (Tulia Falleti, Orfeo Fioretos and Adam Sheingate, eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.


  • Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is a mosque again. Do Turkish citizens want Erdogan to restore the caliphate?” (with Tarek Masoud). Analysis piece at the Monkey Cage Blog of The Washington Post. July 2020.
  • Who really won Tunisia’s first democratic local elections?” Analysis piece at the Monkey Cage Blog of The Washington Post.
  • “One third of municipal councilors in Tunisia are from independent lists. How independent are they?” Democracy International (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark), July 2018. [English] [Arabic]
  • “Generational divide in Tunisia’s 2018 municipal elections: Are youth candidates different?” Democracy International (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark), July 2018. [English] [Arabic]
  • “List fillers or future leaders? Female candidates in Tunisia’s 2018 municipal elections.” Democracy International (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark), July 2018. [English] [Arabic]
  • “Introducing the Tunisian local election candidate survey (LECS): A new approach to studying local governance.” Democracy International (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark), July 2018. [English] [Arabic]

Policy Work

Since my graduation from the LSE with a Master’s degree, I have worked extensively for think-tanks and international organizations as a policy analyst and a consultant. In this page, you can find information and links to publications resulting from that work.

Consultancy for UNHCR and WFP Lebanon for their cash assistance programs (2018 – ongoing)

I have been part of a four-member team (with Onur Altindag from Bentley, Stephen D. O’Connell from Emory and Zeynep Balcioglu from Northeastern) providing research for the cash assistance targeting model for Syrian refugees. Some findings of this research are also presented in academic venues.

Background report for UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (2015)
Education policy analyst at the Education Reform Initiative (2008-2013)



  • GenEd 1008: Power and Identity in the Middle East (Spring 2020)
  • Gov 20: Foundations of Comparative Politics (Fall 2019)
    Evaluation score: 4.6/5
  • Gov 50: Introduction to Political Science Research Methods (Spring 2017)
    Evaluation score: 5.0/5
  • Gov 1207: Comparative Politics of the Middle East (Fall 2016)
    Evaluation score: 4.3/5