The 2014 Tunisian Election: More than a Secular-Islamist Divide

By Ashley Anderson

The completion of Tunisia’s second democratic election on October 26, 2014, marked a watershed moment in the history of Middle Eastern politics. Amidst a litany of Arab Spring “failures”—resulting in state collapse in Libya, civil war in Syria, renewed military rule in Egypt, and autocratic persistence in countries from Bahrain to Morocco—the execution of free and fair elections, and particularly the victory of the secular left over Islamist incumbents has lead many to laud Tunisia’s progress in consolidating the region’s first true democracy. Yet despite scholarly praise, I caution the wave of enthusiasm engendered by Tunisia’s recent electoral results. In particular, I argue that the binary depiction of the election as a triumph of secularism over political Islam is inaccurate and provides a false picture of voter preferences in post-authoritarian elections. More than ideology, I argue that what matters most to voters in democratic elections is the ability of the newly elected government to accomplish concrete policy goals such as economic growth, reduction of inequality, and social development (i.e. to establish performance legitimacy)—a feature to which neither secular Nidaa Tounes or Islamist Ennahda can currently lay claim. This article, then, tempers scholarly enthusiasm over Tunisia’s democratic prospects, instead advocating for a more nuanced understanding of party politics and voter concerns as necessary to understand the nascent regime’s chances for long-term success.

More than a Secular-Islamist Divide: Ideology and Governance in the Modern Middle East

Much has been made of the role of ideology in the literature on Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, in most of the scholarship on parties in the Middle East, the salience of party ideology—and particularly the divide between Islamist and secularist parties—has been central to explanations of political preferences and voting patterns in the region. On the one hand, early scholarship highlights the benefits of secularism for parties wishing to contest elections in democratic contexts.1 According to this logic, because intransigence of Islamists’ ideological platforms, as well as their association with illiberal values, is seen as inimical to democratic governance, secular parties should be better placed to appeal to the median voter’s preference for liberal democracy, thus making it more likely for such parties to win elections in post-authoritarian contexts. On the other hand, recent waves of scholarship suggest that Islamist parties may have the ideological upper hand in democratic contests. In this view, because of their religious grounding, Islamists possess defining characteristics—reputations of moral purity, ideological hegemony, and claims to religious legitimacy—that distinguish them from their secular counterparts and comprise a distinct “Islamic political advantage.”2 As a result, Islamist parties are seen to be less prone to the corrupt and unjust practices that defined the former regime, making them more likely to succeed in democratic politics.3

Chart image for A Anderson featureYet, despite the prevalence of ideological explanations of voter preferences, evidence of an Islamist-secularist divide with respect to electoral outcomes is unsubstantiated, both in the broader Middle East and Tunisia specifically. To begin, survey data suggests that ideological cleavages may be much less salient in determining voter preferences than current theories presume. Among citizens surveyed in the 2011 and 2013 Arab Barometer, only 32.1% claimed that a politician’s “piety” was an important concern in selecting leadership, while only 17.5%4 ranked piety as a candidate’s most important qualification for political leadership. Additionally, empirical evidence suggests there is little difference between secularist and Islamist governments with respect to their propensity for democratic governance. Early studies by Mark Tessler demonstrate a lack of correlation between personal religiosity and preference for democracy in Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, and Morocco, while more recent studies show that Muslim populations continue to display a strong preference for democracy even when conditioning on preference for shar’ia law.5 Finally, voter assessment of Islamist parties provides little support of an “Islamist political advantage.” In Tunisia in particular, voters report low levels of confidence in both Islamist and secular parties and are equally as likely to evaluate Islamist parties as corrupt even when conditioning on personal piety of the respondent6 (see Fig 1).

“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”: Performance Legitimacy and Democratic Success

If the salience of ideological cleavages between secularists and Islamists is overstated, what can explain electoral outcomes in the modern Middle East? In what follows, I argue that performance legitimacy—or the ability of governments to achieve concrete policy goals such as economic development and reduction of social inequality—matters much more for the electoral success of new governments than party ideology. Using data from the 2011 and 2013 Arab Barometer survey, I find that voter assessments of parties, both during and after electoral contests, are highly sensitive to issues of economic and social performance, making citizens more likely to be disaffected with new parties and democratic governance when performance goals are unmet.

Indeed, in Tunisia, the vast majority of citizens in both the 2011 and 2013 waves of the Arab Barometer claimed that the “most important challenges facing the country” were economic—with unemployment and corruption ranking highest among citizen concerns. In addition, Pew Research democratic governance is also highly linked to economic and social outcomes, with over 40% of survey respondents claiming that the most important feature of a democracy was either (a) narrowing the gap between rich and poor or (b) providing a decent standard of living for Tunisian citizens. Finally, citizen evaluations of political candidates appear highly contingent upon economic and social concerns. In 2011, over 50% of respondents claimed that the most important concern when selecting candidates was the extent to which the candidates’ platform addressed the “issues that are important to you,” a factor that outweighed both candidate education, religiosity, and participation in the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Clearly then, the ability of candidates to enact vast social and economic reforms weighs heavily on the mind of Tunisian voters, and is expected to significantly affect their candidate selection as well as their evaluation of government effectiveness following democratic elections.

Unfortunately, a close examination of Tunisian parties reveals that neither secular nor Islamist parties can lay claim to performance legitimacy in terms of economic or social development. Already, Tunisia’s main Islamist party has proven itself incapable of adequately addressing the economic and social concerns of citizens—according to World Bank indicators, over the two years of Ennahda rule GDP growth increased by a mere .5%, while national unemployment remained steady at nearly 13%.7 Moreover, government efforts at addressing regional inequality also proved disappointing. Although reduction of regional disparity remained at the forefront of Ennahda’s political platform, by the end of the party’s rule in 2014, regional unemployment in the nation’s southern interior governorates was still double the rate of unemployment in the capital on average.8

Additionally, despite popular enthusiasm, it is unlikely that secular Nidaa Tounes possesses the organizational capacity or ideological coherence to successfully tackle Tunisia’s vast economic and social problems. To begin, as a new party, Nidaa Tounes is organizationally weak and lacks the leadership structures and grassroots support necessary to implement significant policy reform. Indeed, party leadership is concentrated almost wholly in the figure of the party chairman—Beji Caid Essebsi—leaving important policy decision in the hands one individual.9 While such centralization may entail the streamlining of policy formation, ultimately, the lack of democratic decision making may also serve to marginalize concerns of populations unrepresented in party leadership, thus alienating crucial sectors of the population in reform efforts. Furthermore, Essebsi’s advanced age suggests that the party will soon face a succession crisis which, given its lack of clear leadership, may distract the party from focusing its attention on achieving economic and social goals.

Beyond organizational deficiencies, Nidaa Tounes also suffers from ideological incoherence, which may weaken its ability to develop a concrete strategy to address the economic and social ills facing Tunisia’s nascent democracy. As an amalgamation of diverse ideological tendencies, Nidaa Tounes lacks a clear platform and has yet to develop a coherent plan for reforming the economy, a task that may prove difficult given its divergent constituencies. In particular, the clash between its purported pro-business orientation and pro-labor membership base makes it unlikely that the party will be able to devise a policy that can satisfy both constituencies simultaneously, leaving it vulnerable to significant opposition from either the working class or employers. In other scholarship, I emphasize the importance of labor support for parties in new democracies—particularly in post-authoritarian contexts, coalitions with labor can serve to legitimize new regimes by providing parties with significant bases of electoral support and ensuring worker quiescence during periods of economic transition.10 Thus, to the extent that Nidaa’s proposed policies serve to alienate this crucial constituency, we should expect it to result in significant decreases in performance for the party, a threat that is especially credible given the strength of Tunisia’s union movement and the role of labor protest in disrupting policy making under the Ennahda regime.


The previous discussion suggests a need for contemporary scholars of Middle Eastern politics to re-evaluate the contours of electoral politics and governance in the region. While much has been made of the ideological cleavage between secularist and Islamists, determinants of voter preferences seem to transcend such simple binaries. Rather than being driven solely by ideological concerns, it appears that voters are much more concerned with policy outcomes and the ability of new governments to produce concrete economic and social changes. Given the importance of performance legitimacy to voter behavior, I argue that we can no longer assume that Islamists or secularists will have an inherent advantage in successfully performing in democratic elections. Instead, to evaluate electoral performance, scholars must go beyond ideology to discover what organizational and structural features of parties make them more or less likely to enact and successfully execute social and economic reforms. Thus, the results of recent Tunisian election should not be hailed as an inevitable success for the country’s nascent democracy, but rather should be considered a crucial testing ground for secular parties, which, at the current moment have quite a lot to prove.

Image of Ashley AndersonAshley Anderson is a Graduate Student Associate of the Center and a PhD candidate in the Department of Government. Her research examines political economy and labor protest in the Middle East and North Africa.



  1. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Culture (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1992).
  2. Melani Cammett, “Is There an Islamist Political Advantage?” Annual Review of Political Science, 17 (2014): 187–206.
  3. Ibid.
  4. In 2013, this figure increased slightly to 17.9%.
  5. Mark Tessler, “Islam and democracy in the Middle East: The impact of religious orientations on attitudes toward democracy in four Arab countries,” Comparative Politics 34.3 (2002): 337–354; Pew Research Center, “Most Muslims Want Democracy, Personal Freedoms, and Islam in Political Life,” Pew Report (2012).
  6. In accordance with Jamal and Tessler (2008), I measure piety as the extent to which a survey respondent reports that he/she “listen[s] to or read[s] the Quran/Bible.”
  7. World Bank, “World Development Indicators.”
  8. Institut Nationale des Statistiques de la Tunisie, “Tableau 11: Taux de chômage par gourvernorat, 200–2013.”
  9. Anne Wolf, “Can Secular Parties Lead the New Tunisia?” (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2014).
  10. Ashley Anderson, “Going Political: Labor and Regime Transition in the Modern Middle East,” Working Paper.