Thomas Carothers, Senior Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s leading experts on democratization. He has written extensively on transitions from authoritarian rule, political development, and democracy promotion in every region of the world. POMED’s Deputy Director for Research Amy Hawthorne recently sat down to interview Carothers, who visited Tunisia in April, about how the country’s democratization process is faring, what aspects of the situation in Tunisia felt similar to the many other post-authoritarian contexts he has studied, and what struck him as unusual. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

POMED: What aspects of Tunisia’s democratization process seem most familiar to you from the many other transitional contexts that you have studied?

Thomas Carothers: When I visited Tunis and started talking to people, several things immediately felt familiar. There are deep patterns common to transitional countries.

First, Tunisians’ overwhelming frustration and disappointment in the transition were instantly recognizable. This is typical of countries that have come out of authoritarian rule and moved into pluralism. Citizens bring to the new democratic process very high expectations that often are quite generalized. They expect that life is going to get a lot better quickly. They expect that the government is finally going to be responsible and take care of the people, and the injustices and inequalities that were so characteristic of the dictatorship are going to be replaced by a fairer system. In general, citizens expect that politicians are going to serve the people rather than the other way around, which is the whole idea of a democratic revolution. But little of that happens very quickly, and some of it does not happen much at all. The palpable sense of frustration in Tunisia was very familiar to me.

What about frustration over corruption in particular? This is something that Tunisians talk a lot about, that corruption has gotten worse since the fall of the dictatorship.

It is common that people in post-authoritarian countries expect that corruption is going to stop and there will be a lot more money put back into the system, and maybe some of it will come back to the people. Yet a perception that corruption is in fact rising rather than ebbing under democratic rule is often a characteristic of transitional countries. There is a double effect regarding corruption in these contexts. One effect is that the level of freedom increases, particularly press freedom, and it becomes much more possible to write about corruption all the way up to the top of the power structure. There is a new, open discussion of corruption that existed before only behind closed doors. The idea that public life is mostly about corruption begins to fill up people’s minds and becomes a way of talking about public affairs.

Another effect is that democratic transitions bring many new forms of corruption. There is an active debate in the political science literature about whether newly democratizing countries are more corrupt than stagnant authoritarian ones; my answer is, it is complicated. Democratizing countries lose the ruling-family corruption of stagnant authoritarian ruling regimes, which is often staggering in its excess, but not necessarily widespread throughout the society. This is replaced by many new politicians who have opportunities for corruption and political parties that now need financing if they are going to compete with one another, which tends to lead to corruption. In addition, there is less fear in some cases of the heavy hand by officials at different levels. Sometimes new forms of corruption simply spring up due to a lack of central control and more freelancing at different levels of the system.

Corruption changes during a democratization process in ways that tend to make it reach more people, more directly. When corruption is by the president and his wife or by the royal family, you hear about it, you may see it, and it is galling, but it does not necessarily touch you. But when the health service, the education service, become more corrupted—or seem to become more corrupted—you interact with those things all the time, every day, so corruption becomes talked about more and becomes more pervasive in everyday life. That leads to a lot of anger.

It is striking that in the last decade, the dominant cause of governments falling before their terms has become public anger over corruption. I wrote about this a few months ago. We saw it happen in South Korea, Guatemala, and Pakistan. It happened a few weeks ago in Armenia, Peru earlier this year, and South Africa last fall. These were all fairly democratic countries, or at least somewhat democratic countries, underlining the tendency of new and struggling democracies to experience a rising public perception of corruption.

Many Tunisians say they are also frustrated by a perceived inability of the political system to respond to social and economic demands. People feel that the country has political freedom and pluralism, but also a dysfunctional state. How common is this?

It is an unfortunate characteristic of countries trying to democratize that pluralism does not fix state capacity problems. It is fairly easy to move from authoritarianism into political pluralism if the iron hand is lifted or crumbles—right away, political parties establish themselves and start to compete. Unfortunately, this new pluralism has only a very loose, and often nonexistent, connection to building better state capacity. I call this syndrome “feckless pluralism.”

Under authoritarianism, states appear to be strong in certain dimensions because they are heavy-handed, repressive, and static—but they are often very weak in actual policy capacity. We saw this in Egypt after the 2011 uprising, and in Tunisia as well to a certain degree. When the heavy hand is removed, it suddenly looks like the state is very weak because the one strength dimension it had is taken away. New rulers come in and they discover that they have in their hands a very weak state capacity, but they no longer have the security apparatus that has cracked down on dissent. The state was weak before, but the heavy-handedness of authoritarianism clouded the weakness. What becomes visible is the fecklessness, the inability to pick up the garbage and to deliver coherent educational services and health services, to provide the services that people really want.

Pluralism—the competition for power, the alternation of power—does not do very much to fix state capacity. We always hope that democracy will allow citizens to punish politicians who do poorly and to reward others who do better. But the reality is that fixing low state capacity is very difficult. It involves fundamental reforms that increase unemployment, because usually the number of workers in the state has to be reduced and people have to be laid off. This can require taking on labor unions, in particular public employee unions that are very difficult to deal with politically, such as the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT, the main labor union in Tunisia). There is pressure to implement these reforms in the middle of austerity because a government needs somehow to reduce excesses in the budget. For these reasons, the grounds for fixing state capacity are problematic in newly democratizing countries, and therefore it does not get done very often.

And what about Tunisia’s mass of political parties–I believe there are something like 30 or 40 legal parties now? Is this unusual?

No, it is not. Typically, in post-authoritarian settings parties multiply tremendously, and this does not subside. In the 1990s, scholars thought such countries would go through a period of having 30, 50, or even 70 parties, and then multiplication would melt away and a “normal” party system would return quickly. But we realized that this often does not happen. Party proliferation often continues for quite a while, or indefinitely in some places. Haiti, for example, is now more than 25 years into its transition and it still has dozens of parties. What happens instead is party churning. Parties form, but they do not really gain ground. Many do not get into parliament, so they either stick around at a very low level or try again in a new form, with new alliances. Parties keep trying to enter the system.

Such proliferation is characteristic of a political system that is unsettled, that has not yet formed coherent blocs of parties that prove to be stable. In some cases, parties fractionate—they break into two, then three, and you have party splitting, which has happened in Tunisia.

Party multiplication is frustrating to the public because it looks like low-level chaos. There are many parties with similar names and indistinguishable platforms, and the public does not know how to choose among them. This leads to a general sense of dissatisfaction about political representation. Tunisia, actually, has had a somewhat more stable and coherent party situation, in that there are two dominant parties, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes. But there is still a lot of party redundancy.

A related phenomenon is civil society burgeoning—the efflorescence of new organizations that form once the authoritarian hand lifts. A proliferation of small, medium, and large citizen groups occurs. Generally, this is a good thing. But it can be disorienting to citizens who are not used to this multiplication and are not sure what the purpose of all these organizations is, particularly if the government starts attacking some of them, questioning their role, asking why they are always challenging state policies. The legitimacy of civil society then becomes an issue. The situation can move quickly from a mushrooming of civic groups to heated debates over who are these people, are they paid by foreigners, what are their real goals, how constructive are they, and are they cooperating.

One thing I also hear often from Tunisian colleagues is disappointment with donors, a sense of not enough support from the international community.

Yes, this is a final common characteristic I wanted to mention. Tunisia has many engaged donors, but to many Tunisians, it seems like it is not enough, that Tunisia is not getting what it needs. Maybe Tunisians do not quite appreciate that they have actually been getting a fair amount of aid compared to some countries, particularly sub-Saharan countries. Seven years after Tunisia’s revolution, donors have hung in there, to some extent. The European Union, the United States, and other donors are trying to help, and their budgets are not insignificant. But they are also getting fatigued, saying things like, “we keep trying, but we can’t seem to crack the corruption issue or the state capacity issue.” Donors remain, but they lose inspiration and confidence about what they are doing. They begin to be frustrated behind closed doors with counterparts. This is not uncommon in transitional countries. For instance, Nepal, which is either donor paradise or purgatory depending on how you look at it, has received an extraordinary amount of assistance for 50 years. The level of frustration and cynicism among donors is bottomless, but they cannot seem to leave. Japan, the United States, Germany, the European Union, Britain: they cannot figure out what it would take to get an effective Nepali state, but they are still there. Haiti is another place that donors cannot seem to leave. Tunisia is much better off than Nepal and Haiti, but you can sense a similar type of emerging frustration among some donors.

You’ve described what feels very familiar about Tunisia. What aspects of the democratization process seem distinctive to you?

Tunisia has some significant distinctive features bearing on its transition that Tunisians do not always see because it is their country, and it is the air they breathe.

One notable aspect is the absence of any obvious major political spoilers—powerful forces outside the political scene ready to come back in and wreck the democratic transition. Most transitional countries have some spoilers. They could take the form of a predatory military that has been put on the back foot by a popular revolution, but is still there, waiting to come back in. The Nigerian military has played this role at various transitional moments; the Egyptian military was a big spoiler after 2011. The Tunisian military has not sought a political role. Or a spoiler could be a very charismatic person or a party waiting in the wings ready to cause trouble, such as a demagogic populist or a former military figure, who can galvanize popular anger in an anti-democratic direction. Hugo Chavez was such a person when he emerged in Venezuela in the 1990s.

What about the so-called old guard—figures and networks connected to the Ben Ali regime?

Tunisia does not have a charismatic, mobilizing figure who is clearly anti-democratic. There is an old guard in Tunisia that is active in politics and closely connected to the internal security forces and the business sector under ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But this old guard is less coherent than the Egyptian military and less capable of stepping back into power. Tunisia does not as of yet have a powerful force outside of the political scene that is poised to come back in and wreck things.

Are there external spoilers of transitions? Sometimes Tunisians and others talk about the chaos in Libya next door as a potential spoiler.

A foreign spoiler is different than a troubled neighbor like Libya. It is a neighbor or a foreign power that is actively trying to undermine the democratic transition—spreading disinformation, funding bad people. For example, in Ukraine, Russia is right there trying to make sure a democratic transition fails. This is just devastating to a democratic transition. Although Tunisia is in a troubled region, it is striking that there is no neighbor preying on its democratic process, feeding on instability, or trying to whip up instability. Algeria, a large and in some ways powerful authoritarian country right next door, so far has played a benign or at times even a constructive role in Tunisia’s democratization.

In addition, Tunisia fortunately lacks a territorial division within the country that fuels irredentism. Indonesia had East Timor and Aceh. Around the time Indonesia democratized, these provinces tried to break away, and this caused lot of problems with the political system. In the 1970s, Ethiopia had to deal with Eritrea, which eventually broke off and became a country. Sudan and South Sudan are both transitional countries that are also going through a civil war. Such divisions usually mess up a democratic transition because the state that is trying to keep the territory together becomes more authoritarian to hold onto the breakaway province, undermining democratic norms.

So these are four big spoilers—a predatory military, a charismatic anti-democratic figure, a foreign spoiler, a territorial division—that Tunisia does not have. That is good news.

What about the consensus between secular and Islamist forces? It has almost become a cliché to talk about “Tunisian consensus and compromise,” but how unusual is this?

Tunisia’s ruling coalition between the two major forces, the secular Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamist-oriented Ennahda party, is rare. Usually when a country has a significant division in its sociopolitical life, whether it is along political, religious, ethnic, tribal, social class, or ideological lines, this usually dominates the transition and becomes the thing that threatens to rip the country apart. For example, Nepal had the Maoists and ended up in civil war; Côte d’Ivoire has two sides that are tribally linked and regionally linked, and this has torn apart the democratic transition. Or, one side or the other grabs the system and holds on to power. But there are not many countries in transition that are divided and actually attempt and succeed at coalition governments as Tunisia has.

Certainly, in Tunisia the Islamist–secular divide is a source of tension, a force in politics that threatens to go off the rails all the time. Tunisians are aware of their country as the only one in the Arab world trying to make the Islamist–non-Islamist divide work in a genuinely democratic way. But Tunisia’s coalition government is fairly distinctive beyond the region, as well. Tunisia’s effort at political compromise and political balance has gone better than in many other countries.

What about the problem of radicalization in Tunisia? How unusual is it as a factor in attempted democratic transitions?

The danger of violent jihadism is another distinctive aspect of Tunisia’s transition. Most democratizing countries have not faced an outside radicalizing source that threatens to radicalize people within the country, who then either leave to go fight or move into terrorism inside the country. Some, like the Philippines, have a terrorism problem in part of the country, but Tunisia’s radicalization challenge, from which no region of the country seems immune, is not that common. There is sometimes a feeling that Tunisia’s transition could be pushed off the rails by a major spate of terrorist acts in the capital or elsewhere in the country—that such events would be enough to scare away tourism, throw the economy into chaos, and cause the constructive coalition to collapse.

Tunisia has not had lustration of ex-ruling party members. What does it mean for democratization that there are a lot of the old regime people still around, and in some cases in important political positions? Some Tunisians worry that these figures, although they are acting within the new democratic system, are lurking anti-democrats.

When I am watching any country in transition from authoritarianism, I always ask who is the alternative elite, separate from the old system, who will enter political life and start running things? Often, there is not much of an alternative to the old authoritarian elite. Maybe there are some such people living in exile who may return, or at least some potential political actors within the country who managed to maintain some life apart from the regime, or maybe no alternative elite exists. Countries usually are stuck with having to accept the role of the old elite that transforms itself and says it is now part of the new system. Whether that can work or not depends. It certainly can work. Some democratizing Central European countries benefitted from an alternative elite because the Communist system in the 1980s began to soften. In Poland, Solidarność (Solidarity), which was a large, independent organization that operated within an authoritarian system, emerged, creating an alternative through union leaders such as Lech Wałęsa and others. In contrast, Romania did not have much of an alternative elite—there were very few people in the diaspora who came back, and most of the people in power after the fall of Communism were in some way connected to the old system.

The hope is that the nature of the new system will not be determined just by the specific character or personality of old guard people who manage to stay in positions of power or regain power, that just because someone was part of the old system, he or she must still be an anti-democrat. It is more about whether the system has been cleaned up so that it works differently. Are limits being placed on the old elite so that they cannot exercise the same behind-the-scenes control over people that they used to? Has economic life become more transparent, especially state-affected economic life—such as state corporations, state banks—so that old elites cannot just continue to be untouchable economically and to possess forms of power that are outside of political control? Are security, economic, and other state institutions now more transparent and accountable to parliament? Is there oversight? What is frustrating in places such as Romania is that the internal security forces were never significantly reformed. Many security officials from the old regime went into business and became oligarchs in the new system; they controlled the media and a lot of state businesses.

Well, Tunisia has not yet made deep reforms to its Ministry of Interior. Do countries have to do such democratic restructuring at the beginning of a transition, or else the moment of opportunity is lost? Or could Tunisia still make these reforms?

It is dangerous not to do it right away, but it is possible to do it later. Chile is a place where security sector reform did not happen all at once after Augusto Pinochet left power. Pinochet had a strong, repressive internal security force. Chile went into transition quickly, and the security force was not overturned immediately. Over time, however, Chile has transformed its security force. Argentina is similar. It was hard in many Latin American transitions to clean up internal security forces, because those countries had been military dictatorships and so were focused on getting the military back to the barracks, and therefore did not turn to internal security forces so quickly. But they were able, through continued alternation of power, continued free press, and continued slow renovation of the state, to improve different elements of the state gradually and to bring them under transparent and accountable control. Eventually internal security forces gradually lost that grip that they had in the 1970s and 1980s. Indonesia also had very repressive internal security forces, but they are much better today. Indonesia also has done this relatively gradually.

On May 6, Tunisia held its first-ever free and fair local elections, in which candidates representing a wide range of political colorations were elected to run 350 municipal councils. Yet some Tunisians (and international analysts) have expressed concern that the low turnout, about 33 percent, is a warning sign of waning popular support for democracy. Are they right to worry?

Turnout dropping across successive elections is certainly another characteristic of transitions, but it is not a danger sign per se. It is unfortunate, but it is almost inevitable after the first elections that there is some falling off. You can have a successful democracy with only so-so voter engagement. Democracy experts are not supposed to say that out loud, because we are supposed to be all for voter engagement and participation. But low turnout is itself simply a typical characteristic of disappointed expectations, and a certain amount of citizen alienation. In addition, it is not unusual for turnout in local elections to be low in democracies. In the United States it is around 20 percent on average.

We know that it can be hard for countries to stay on a democratic path. What do you think is next for Tunisia? Do you share the concern of some people that Tunisia is drifting back toward authoritarianism?

Transitions have several possible paths. One path is what I talked about earlier, “feckless pluralism”: pluralism continues, power alternates, but it does not provide the economic progress or progress in state capacity that satisfies citizens; democracy does not seem to be consolidating in a positive way. The Philippines was like this: after the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, it experienced a couple of decades of relatively low-performance democracy. Now it is going off the rails with a leader, Rodrigo Duterte, who is very anti-democratic in certain ways. El Salvador has gone on for a long time with a sort of troubled pluralism, but it has stayed on the democratic rails. It has tremendous social problems and huge economic problems, but it is still democratic. So one possibility is that Tunisia just continues along with low-intensity, low-performance democracy for a long time. Some countries stay on this path indefinitely.

A second path is one in which the system gradually becomes more marked by state capture, either by a dominant party or by all major parties. This occurs when one or more parties take over the state in a systemic way, and the line between the state and party becomes effaced. Parties occupy what should be a somewhat more independent state. If you look on the board of state enterprises and corporations, party figures control them. State banks become vehicles of parties, and universities are taken over by parties.

With this comes a lot of corruption, a public perception that the entire system is systemically corrupt, and a lot of anger. State capture is different than disorganized corruption, in which everyone is taking a bribe. Every major institution is in the hands of a kind of mafia-like network that is run by a party.

We hear about mafia-like corruption networks in Tunisia, dominated by figures from the old regime. Is Tunisia at immediate risk of state capture?

No, it is not there yet. There is a lot of corruption, but Tunisia does not have that kind of organized, systemic, entrenched corruption, for instance as South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC) has unfortunately developed. The ANC had been in power for a much longer time than Tunisia’s ruling coalition has been, and it has led the country down a road of state capture that has produced a lot of social anger. State capture is different than an authoritarian grip. South Africa is fairly democratic, and it has not experienced an authoritarian deviation away from democratization. It is a different kind of deviation. The ANC is gripping the society, but it is not repressing the society, it is just milking it economically.

A third post-authoritarian path is what I call a dominant party path. One party sits on the system, which is still somewhat democratic, but this party starts to undermine the levers that would allow it to be challenged politically. The dominant party uses state resources for elections and has a dominant place in every election because it can outspend other parties; it starts to corrupt the electoral commission, it takes over the media, and it controls the information space. One party gets a preponderance of political power and alternation stops.

Could a dominant party path happen in Tunisia?

It could, although Tunisia is still a fairly multi-polar system. There is not as yet a party that has 60-70 percent of the power that is never going to trade power again.

It is worth noting that state capture and dominant party systems can overlap at the same time, but they are different. For example, Guatemala did not have any one party that ran the country for the past 25 years, but it had a group of elites who captured the state. They were milking the system for all it was worth economically, yet they were trading power—each time there was an election there was a different subset of the elite taking over. South Africa had both state capture and dominant party systems. In Namibia, there is a dominant party, but there is less of a state capture problem and much less systemic corruption than in South Africa, where the ANC really milked the country for its own purposes.

Then there is the dynamic that Brazil is experiencing, in which there is an eruption of public anger over corruption, and that public anger over how the system has evolved and a desire for change provoke a different period of politics. This can happen even in fairly successful democratic transitions like South Korea, where public anger erupts and pushes the president out. In Guatemala, which is more like Tunisia in terms of its overall economic level, we saw something like this last year, in which public anger led to an eruption of mass protests against a system that the public felt was against them.

And what about backsliding into authoritarianism?

Yes, another path is a slide back into authoritarian rule, in which a figure emerges who takes over the system and closes it back down, and essentially there is an authoritarian capture of the system. Right now, that does not look very likely to me in Tunisia. I was struck by the fear among some Tunisians that things might be drifting into some kind of soft authoritarianism. When I asked Tunisians what that would look like, they mentioned a heightened presidentialism, in which the core political system is changed in way that significantly boosts the political power of the president. It becomes less of a parliamentary system and more of a hyper-presidential system. Some Tunisians with whom I spoke said they worry that Nidaa Tounes in particular would like to carry out constitutional reforms to that end, saying, “We need to get a grip on the country, things are too chaotic.” They fear presidentialism, of course, because of the scars of the dictatorships of Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-2011).

There are a few other unfortunate signs that were striking to me. I heard that the Nidaa–Ennahda coalition—in one sense something very positive, with the major parties sitting down, hammering out compromises, doing deals—looks to many citizens like power being wielded and decisions being made behind closed doors. I heard that for many voters that the consensus has taken on the quality of, “it is all out of our control,” with citizens feeling that power is being taken away and exercised in a nontransparent way.

There also seems to be some perception on the part of civil society actors that recently there is less tolerance of civil society and more pressure on it, that power holders are tired of civil society complaining all the time and are now saying to civil society representatives, “There are limits to what you should be able to do.” What is familiar to me is that some people are more concerned about this than others. There are some civil society activists that are really exercised about what they see as closing space. India is like this today. Some people in the civil society sector say that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi the country is already well down the road to authoritarianism. Other Indians in the business elite say, “Oh, those civil society people always panic over the little things, everything is going to be fine.” I got the same sense in Tunisia. One civil society activist was convinced that the transition was already going in a very bad direction, while others remarked that a few little things have unsettled them but nothing really bad is going on and there is still plenty of freedom in the country.

Do you want to conclude with any predictions about Tunisian democratization?

I have learned that rule number one if you are a comparativist studying transitions over time is not to make predictions. We just do not know what’s going to happen, and in some cases, what happens can be very surprising. Who was predicting Tunisia’s revolution? Basically nobody. So if Tunisians asked me where Tunisia is going to be in ten years, I would say, guess what—it is in your hands. Democratization could stagnate, or backslide. Or there could be further democratization, and things could get better. The economic situation could improve, and Tunisians could deepen democratic patterns. A new generation of Tunisians could start to take democracy as completely normal and say we are never going to go back to the old system because we have zero romanticism about authoritarianism. The two main parties could learn that neither one is going to do the other in, and they can get along with each other. Radicalization could fail to take hold in a significant way. We could see a situation where things are somewhat more positive—that is certainly in the cards as well. Tunisia’s future is up for grabs.

This interview was originally published by the Project on Middle East Democracy.