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 an intra-organizational problem, rather than an ideological mismatch or absence of mobilizing structures. Secular-modernist parties suffer from electoral underperformance when and where they lack “organizational cohesiveness,” or the capacity and willingness of party activists and candidates to collaborate effectively and remain unified even in the face of personal dissatisfaction or institutional crisis. When secular parties do not display organizational cohesiveness, they cannot build trust and good governance credentials among their audiences. Voters who witness in-party fighting and a cadre of politicians who seem incapable of collectively solving daunting socio-economic problems turn to alternative parties, mostly Islamists.

I demonstrate the plausibility of this argument with subnational analyses of the electoral strength of two important secular-modernist parties in the most recent local elections in Tunisia (2018) and Turkey (2019). In both countries, I conducted extensive pre-election interviews with central and local political elite, original and representative candidate surveys, 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 cohesiveness of parties at the municipal level and show that it is significantly correlated 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.

By tracing their organizational evolution since the 1950s and exploring candidate selection dynamics in both parties in the most recent local elections in Tunisia and Turkey, I also explain why secular-modernist parties are more likely to have an organizational cohesiveness problem than their Islamist counterparts. 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 cohesiveness and governance credentials for secular political parties. Instead, they have opted to seize opportunities within the private sector, employment in multi-national corporations, and migration. 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 upper-middle classes further away from involvement. Thus, secular-modernist parties in the Middle East are stuck in middling levels of electoral performance, ranging from about 15 to 20 percent of voting shares. In my book project, I use several sources of data (pre-election interviews, a comparison of household data with the candidate data, and a candidate selection conjoint experiment) to explore how these intra-party dynamics lead to low levels of organizational cohesiveness.