Research in Progress

Book Manuscript:

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.

Working Papers: 

CEGA Working Paper: “The Dynamics of Corruption in International Trade: Evidence on Bribery and Tax Evasion from Tunisian Customs Transactions?” (with Samuel Leone and Jaweher Mbarek)

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Every year low- and middle-income countries import goods worth more than $7 trillion, and in many states these shipments must first pass through the hands of corrupt customs officials. With such high stakes, policymakers require a deep understanding of both the causes and the effects of customs fraud. In addition, researchers have the opportunity to use trade corruption as a laboratory to discover new insights about corruption as a whole. One previously unexplored complexity is that bribe payers and bribe receivers often have repeated interactions; given corruption’s characteristic contracting frictions, counterparty risks, and information asymmetries, these long-running relationships likely matter for a wide variety of outcomes across a wide variety of contexts. To pursue these learning objectives, we overcome the data and identification challenges inherent to investigating bribery: we build an original dataset on Tunisian customs transactions using an audit study to directly observe bribes, and we leverage a natural experiment in which a computer algorithm ran- domly assigns customs officials to import shipments. There are three sets of results. First, we show that bribery and tax evasion are widespread, that bribery is collusive (not coercive), and that age (but not gender) predicts officials’ corruptibility. Second, in line with a straightforward Nash bargaining model, we show that the length of official/trader relationships increases tax evasion but decreases bribe amounts. Third, we zoom out to consider the larger macroeconomic implications and show that, in terms of lost tax revenue, bribery costs the Tunisian government 0.7% of GDP or $80 per citizen.

“Defectors and Dissidents: The Authoritarian Roots of Stability in New Democracies”

In this paper, I examine how the uncertainty of elections in new democracies can produce governments with varying levels of complicity in crimes committed under dictatorship. I develop a theory for why some leaders of new democracies are able to command the state and others are not. I create a typology for ties to the past and use an original dataset that codes elected leaders during democratic transitions between 1990 and 2010 to test my argument.

“Disenchanted with Democracy?” (with Milan Svolik)

In this project, we use a conjoint experiment embedded in a nationally representative survey conducted immediately after the 2019 elections in Tunisia to understand why some voters support politicians affiliated with the formerly ruling party and to adjudicate between the strength of the appeal of the former regime and that of other candidate qualities.