Book Project

Skipping Class: Tunisia’s Party System After the Revolution

fech nestanaou

Why did the party system emerging after Tunisia’s 2010–11 uprising revolve more tightly around competing notions of national and religious identity than competing economic policies? Why have political parties in the country seemingly offered such narrow or unclear alternatives to addressing economic problems—even as the public has continually expressed that economic problems should be the priority? What lessons can we derive from Tunisia’s experience regarding the politicization of social cleavages in other new democracies?

This project is motivated in part by the puzzles arising from the study of class and cultural identity as bases for partisanship in the Arab world and other regions. Despite the empirical ubiquity and theoretical centrality of class-based voting in other regions, recent research on the topic in the Arab world has raised a number of puzzles. Poor people have supported Islamist parties at a higher rate than they have the parties traditionally thought to be their vanguards. Voters have not separated into parties according to their preferences for taxation and redistribution. People have expressed a high level of uncertainty and disagreement regarding the economic policy orientations of political parties in the region. If party systems in the Arab world have featured the economically defined left-right cleavages so central to comparative politics, they have been hard to find.

I argue that we cannot fully account for this puzzle without closely examining the choices offered by political parties in the country. Part of the contribution of the book is descriptive. Putting the reader in the position of an unusually thorough voter, I use a variety of methods to describe the choices (and areas of overlap) offered by the Tunisian party system in the national elections that have taken place since the uprising. I show that political parties have offered broadly similar economic policy platforms, competing instead to establish expertise and readiness to govern. Another part of the contribution is theoretical. I argue that this difficulty in staking out distinct policy positions and the focus on establishing credibility stem in large part from the difficult transition experienced by parties formed in opposition to authoritarian rule.

To understand the choices offered by Tunisian parties and how they are perceived, I draw upon multiple forms of data. First, to understand the trajectory of historical opposition parties during Tunisia’s transition, I draw upon newly available historical material, including the proceedings of the Truth and Dignity Commission, newly released archival material compiled by Ennahdha, and a large number of historical memoirs. To understand the choices presented to voters, I draw upon a large set of campaign materials, including party platforms, subnational campaign posters, and nationally televised subnational campaign statements. To understand the attitudinal bases underlying the party system, I draw both upon existing surveys and a novel nationally representative survey that I conducted immediately after the 2019 elections. The project also draws upon interviews conducted during fieldwork adding up to more than seven months.

I presented the manuscript at the 2021 Project on Middle East Political Science Junior Scholars Book Development Workshop. The full manuscript is available upon request.

Table of Contents:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Theoretical Foundations
  • Chapter 3: The Historical Roots
  • Chapter 4: Identity, Ideology, and Tunisia’s Founding Elections
  • Chapter 5: What Parties Talked About When They Talked About the Economy
  • Chapter 6: The Winding and Unwinding of Tunisia’s Party System, 2014-2019
  • Chapter 7: Nostalgia and the Dynamics of the Party System
  • Chapter 8: Conclusion