Welcome to my website.

I am a political scientist working on political parties, social policy and democratic decline, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. I recently received my PhD in political science from Harvard University Government Department (July 2021). During the 2021-2022 academic year, I am a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law (CDDRL).

My dissertation project explores the reasons behind the weak electoral appeal of secular 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 interviews with party elites and candidates, novel and large-scale candidate surveys, and contemporaneous household surveys in both countries. Data collection was 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 social policies for refugees, and citizens’ responses to autocrats’ assaults on democratic institutions.

Here is an up-to-date CV.

Please feel free to contact me for inquiries related to my work at sasmaz@stanford.edu or aytugsasmaz@gmail.com.

NEW EXPLAINER ON TUNISIA

“The Collapse of Tunisia’s Party System and the Rise of Kais Saied”
(with Nate Grubman)
Op-ed/explainer at MERIP Online.

In July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to suspend Parliament and seize additional powers created a constitutional crisis. This article examines what happened up to this point, focusing on how Tunisia’s political parties failed to build durable institutions. As Tunisians wait to see how Saied executes his new powers, the shape of Tunisia’s political system and its political parties hang in the balance.

Dissertation Project

WHY HAVE SECULAR PARTIES BEEN WEAK IN THE POST-UPRISING MENA?

This project brings a new perspective to a long-standing question in political science and Middle East studies: Why have secular 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 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 parties in the region, Nidaa Tounes and Republican People’s Party, in the most recent local elections in Tunisia and Turkey. In both countries, I conducted extensive interviews with central and local political elite, original and representative candidate surveys, and contemporaneous household surveys. Borrowing from organizational psychology 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.

This graph shows the relationship between organizational cohesion and secular-Islamist vote difference in the 2018 local elections in Tunisia. Each dot represents a city in which I was able to measure the organizational cohesion of both secular party’s and Islamist party’s local branch just before the elections. The fitted line comes from an OLS regression with various controls. In the cities in the red font, I conducted post-election interviews to better understand how and in which circumstances organizational cohesion was likely to lead to electoral strength.

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.

This graph shows the share of people with higher education (a proxy for competence) among the Islamist and secular voter bases, eligible aspirants and candidates of the two main parties in Tunisia’s 2018 local elections. The data comes from an original candidate survey and a contemporaneous household survey.

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.

Research

For description of original data I collected for research, please visit the Data page of this website.

PEER-REVIEWED PUBLICATIONS

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.

RESEARCH TOPICS, PROJECTS AND WORKING PAPERS

social services in the context of ethnic and organizational diversity

How do ordinary people navigate social welfare regimes characterized by diversity of (non-state) provider organizations? Are non-state organizations more likely to discriminate in favor of their co-ethnics? Which type of organizations (religious charities, or secular NGOs) are more likely to provide higher quality services, and why? Which organizations provide equal or superior quality for most vulnerable groups, such as refugees?

We explore these questions with original data from Lebanese primary health care network. In collaboration with 13 local research assistants, we collected data from ~70 centers, 200 doctors and 1200 patients, with patient exit interviews, surveys and tests with doctors and chief medical officers, and direct observations of doctor-patient interactions.

  • “Equity with Prejudice: International NGOs and Healthcare Delivery in Refugee Crises” (with Melani Cammett) – Working paper available at SSRN, revise and resubmit
  • “Secular vs. Religious Advantage in Providing Quality health care” (with Melani Cammett)
DEMOCRATIC DECLINE AND BREAKDOWN

How do citizens respond to presidents’ assaults on democratic institutions? What type of motivations makes citizens more likely to support moves toward authoritarianism, and under which conditions?

  • “How Voters Respond to Presidential Assaults on Checks and Balances: Evidence from a Survey Experiment in Turkey” (with Alper Yagci and Daniel Ziblatt) – Revise and resubmit
Political organizations in the Middle East and North Africa

How are political parties built and organized in the MENA region? Who becomes a politician and why? How do the party elites and novice politicians react to institutional rules, citizens’ requests and social movements around them?

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]
  • “How do Party Members Respond to Top-Down Moderation: Evidence from the Islamist Party in Tunisia” (with Alexandra Blackman and Julia Clark) – presented at Political Parties in Africa conference
Institutional design of local governance

How do the countries in the MENA, the region with the highest centralization in public administration, reform their local governance? What are the outcomes of decentralization or efficiency-enhancing reforms?

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

BOOK CHAPTERS

  • “Local Political Priorities during Tunisia’s First Democratic Municipal Elections” (with Alex Blackman and Julia Clark), in Governance and Local Development in the Middle East and North Africa (Kristen Kao and Ellen Lust, eds.), New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming. 
  • 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.

OP-EDs & BRIEFS

Teaching

HARVARD UNIVERSITY TEACHING FELLOWSHIPS

  • GenEd 1008: Power and Identity in the Middle East (Spring 2020)
    Evaluations cancelled due to the pandemic
  • Gov 20: Foundations of Comparative Politics (Fall 2019)
    Evaluation score: 4.6/5
    Won Bok Center’s Excellence in Teaching award
  • Gov 50: Introduction to Political Science Research Methods (Spring 2017)
    Evaluation score: 5.0/5
    Won Bok Center’s Excellence in Teaching award
  • Gov 1207: Comparative Politics of the Middle East (Fall 2016)
    Evaluation score: 4.3/5

Student evaluation reports from both Harvard College and Harvard Extension School are available upon request.

Data

Throughout my doctoral study and research consultancy, I worked on collecting original data in challenging contexts, such as collecting candidate data in in the first ever democratic local elections in Tunisia, primary health care centers in Lebanon and a survey experiment just one week before the first ever presidential elections in Turkey.

This page presents information on (some) original data collection projects I have been involved in. If you are interested in using these datasets for research, please contact me at sasmaz@stanford.edu or aytugsasmaz@gmail.com.

SOCIO-POLITICAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH CARE QUALITY IN LEBANON

  • With Melani Cammett (overall principal investigator), and Carmel Salhi and Lara Jirmanus (advisors for public health and medicine-related question modules)
  • Collected data in 68 primary health care centers in Lebanon
  • Components included: A survey with chief medical officers, a survey with ~220 doctors, a multiple-choice test with ~170 doctors, direct observation of ~1200 patient-doctor interactions, exit interviews with ~1200 patients
  • Supported by the Middle East Initiative and the Emirates Leadership Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School
  • Data and code for “Navigating Welfare Regimes…” (Governance, 2021) available here

LOCAL ELECTION CANDIDATE SURVEY – TUNISIA

  • With Alex Blackman and Julia Clark
  • Survey with ~2000 candidates in ~100 municipalities from almost all parties and independent lists, just before the first democratic local elections in Tunisia in 2018
  • More information on data collection can be found here
  • Supported by Democracy International, Freeman Spogli Institute (Stanford), Project on Middle East Political Science, Institute for Quantitative Social Science (Harvard)

LOCAL ELECTION CANDIDATE SURVEY – TURKEY

  • Survey with ~400 candidates in 25 municipalities just before the 2019 local elections (candidates were from the main secular party, CHP, and the main Islamist party, AKP)
  • Question modules included views on political issues, opinions on party organization, individual and family political background, collective orientation, internal political efficacy, among others
  • Question form (in Turkish) can be found here
  • Supported by Institute for Quantitative Social Science (Harvard)

LOCAL ELECTION HOUSEHOLD SURVEY – TURKEY

  • With Tarek Masoud
  • Collected data from 2500 households in 50 districts of Turkey, just before the 2019 local elections
  • Question modules included vote choice, views on political parties and secularism, views on foreign countries and leaders, active political participation, individual and family political background, collective orientation, internal political efficacy, among others
  • Supported by the Middle East Initiative (Harvard Kennedy School)

SURVEY EXPERIMENT ON SUPPORT FOR SUPER-PRESIDENTIALISM IN TURKEY

  • With Alper Yagci and Daniel Ziblatt
  • Collected data from ~2000 households in 125 neighborhoods in Istanbul, Turkey, just before 2018 presidential elections
  • Random assignment to different polling results, outcome variable is change in support for super-presidentialism
  • Supported by Ozyegin University and Center for European Studies (Harvard)