Book Project


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. The few explanations derived from extant literature attribute the decline of secular parties to weak ideological support for secularism among the Middle Eastern publics, the absence of institutional venues for secular actors to interact with the electorate, or elitism of secular party elites and cadres. Yet, 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. Second, 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 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 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.

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