VoxEU Column Politics and economics Poverty and Income Inequality

Voting Islamist: It’s the economy, stupid

It is typically argued that the rising popularity of Islamist parties in parts of the Arab world reflects votes from the poor and disenfranchised. This column challenges this perspective, arguing that Islamist parties gain political support from the middle classes, due in large part to neoliberal economic policies. Using survey and electoral data from Tunisia, it shows that belonging to the middle class and living in a rich district together affect the decision to vote for the religious party more than actually being religious. These findings suggest that the same framework used to analyse political competition in the West can be fruitfully applied to the Muslim world. 

On 30 June 2012, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was sworn in as Egyptian president, Islamist parties appeared to be the real political winners of the Arab Spring. Only eight months earlier, in Tunisia, the Islamist party Ennahdha won more than three times the votes of any other party in the first democratic elections in the country’s history. Commentators and scholars have been pointing to a broader revival of political Islam at least since Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey’s first non-secular prime minister in 1995. Yet, we still know very little about the determinants of popular support for Islamist parties. Who elected them, and why?

A puzzling pattern

Political scientists and commentators alike have argued that Islamist parties are voted in by the poor and disenfranchised. There are at least two reasons to believe this. First, the poor are more religious (Huber and Stanig 2011, Chen and Lind 2015), while the middle class is often viewed as the herald of secular democratic values, according to what has been characterised as the ‘modernisation theory’ (Lipset 1959). Second, in line with the patronage-clientelism theories of electoral politics in developing countries, the specialised literature on political Islam has pointed to the fact that poor voters are more likely to depend on the charitable organisations associated with religious parties (Cammett 2014, Flanigan 2008, Ottaway 2007).

However, official electoral results portray a radically different and puzzling picture. Figure 1 plots the relationship between the voting share for the Islamic party Ennahdha and a district level indicator of wealth (1 minus the poverty rate) in Tunisia in 2011. Richer districts voted overwhelmingly for the Islamic party. The same pattern can be observed in Figure 2, which maps the district level indicator of wealth and the vote share for Ennahdha district by district.

Figure 1. Votes for Ennahdha and district-level wealth

Notes: Local polynomial fit weighted by district population with 90% confidence interval. On the horizontal axis is one minus the poverty rate at the district level. On the vertical axis is the share of votes for Ennahdha as a fraction of valid expressed votes. Source: Census of Tunisia 2005 and Instance Supérieure Indépendente pour les Elections 2011.

Figure 2. Votes for Ennahdha and district-level wealth, district by district

a. Vote for Ennahdha

b. District wealth: 1 minus the poverty rate

Notes: The dots indicate our survey sites. Source: Census of Tunisia 2005 and Instance Supérieure Indépendente pour les Elections 2011

Tunisia is not the only case. From Egypt to Morocco, scholars have been puzzled by the fact that the electoral support for Islamic parties comes from richer areas (Elsayyad and Hanafy 2014, Pellicer and Wegner 2014).

Taxes, charity, and political Islam

In a new paper, we show that standard public finance and individual level data can help explain the voting pattern in these elections (Fourati et al. 2016). Our argument lies in the competition between the state and local religious charities in the provision of public goods. Religious political parties, precisely because of their strong links to these charities, tend to oppose state redistribution and state-level taxation, as this would reduce the amount of disposable income that constitutes the donation base of local religious charities. This is especially the case under Islam, where individuals are expected to donate a fraction of their disposable income to local charities (zakat). We therefore predict that Islamic parties run on low-tax platforms, and as such are supported by richer individuals and richer districts. Meanwhile, a victory of the religious party may also come with restrictions on the consumption of luxury goods, entertainment, and other activities accessible only to the richer classes. Our model therefore predicts that the probability that a voter chooses the religious party increases in income for the poorest voters, but it might decrease in income for the richest, depending on specific political and economic conditions. Furthermore, a voter in a richer district is more likely to choose the religious party than one with similar income and religious preferences, but who lives in a poorer district.

We test these predictions on original micro-level survey data in a nationally representative survey of 600 individuals that we collected in 30 districts in Tunisia (see Figure 2 for the location of our survey sites). Our empirical results align with our predictions. After controlling for the level of religiosity, among the poorest voters, a small increase in socioeconomic status such as the ownership of one more domestic asset (e.g. a fridge) increases the probability of voting for the Islamic party Ennahdha by more than 10 percentage points. This effect reduces to zero around the sample average of asset ownership and becomes negative for the richest voters. Furthermore, living in a district that is richer than the median district increases the probability of voting for Ennahdha by a further 10 percentage points. As a comparison, a voter who prays every single day is 20 percentage points more likely to vote for Ennahdha than one who never prays. Therefore, belonging to the middle class and living in a rich district together affect the decision to vote for the religious party more than being religious.

Our theory is also supported by the analysis of the political platform of the Islamic party in the 2011 Tunisian election. The following table displays the platforms of the major political parties in the 2011 election. Ennahdha clearly distinguishes itself by its opposition to redistributive transfers from rich to poor regions, and its stance in favour of a free market economy with minimal state involvement. Probably the only exception to what has been described as Ennahdha's commitment to a typical neo-liberal platform (Hayward 2011, Habibi 2012, Boughzala 2013, Chamki 2015) consists of its support for a tax on the super wealthy, which is consistent with the assumptions of our theoretical model. 

Table 1. Electoral platforms of major parties in the 2011 Tunisian election

Source: Ikhtiar. Ikhtiar is an online questionnaire to help people decide which party to vote for in the 2011 election. It was designed by a collective of independent experts who surveyed each main political party in order to establish comparative platforms. -1 is: against, 0. is: without opinion, and 1 is: in favour.

Popular explanations

Other popular explanations highlighted in the literature are based on psychological and behavioural factors. Some claim that support for Islamic parties comes from highly religious individuals who share anti-Western sentiments and aversion to gender parity; others, that it comes from highly educated individuals from the low to middle classes living in highly unequal environments and coping with unfulfilled aspirations (Binzel and Carvalho 2015). Another popular view is that individuals perceived Islamic parties as being tougher on corruption as they constituted the main opposition to the former autocratic regimes. We carefully test for each of these alternative mechanisms and find no support for any of them, while our main results remain robust. We also find no systematic pattern between individual wealth and voting for any other party or with abstention. Poorer voters split their votes between all other major parties, mainly leaning to the left of Ennahdha's economic agenda. Poorer voters were also neither less informed nor informed differently about the election.

Tunisia is not an isolated case. In our paper, we document that the same voting pattern we uncover in Tunisia is common to several elections in Muslim democracies, namely Egypt, and Turkey in the 1990s (Fourati et al. 2016). In all these elections, the probability of voting for the religious party increases in income and is greater in richer districts.

Islam and democracy

A fervent political debate surrounds the future of democracy in the Arab world. Some have gone as far as doubting that Islam and democracy are reconcilable. Others have developed complex psychological theories of Islamism. Our results suggest that we might learn more about political Islam and the development of democracies in the Muslim world if we study these phenomena within the same framework we study political competition in the West.


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