On Sunday, Tunisians headed to the polls to vote for their first post-revolution Parliament. It is the first regular legislative election since the departure of the country’s long-time autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ousted by a wave of popular protests. These legislative elections will be followed by a presidential election in two rounds in November and December of this year. More than 5 million people, about half the population, registered to vote and thousands of candidates from more than 100 political parties ran for 217 seats in the People’s Assembly, the country’s first permanent legislature since the 2011 popular uprising.

This is the second parliamentary vote since Ben Ali’s overthrow: Tunisia’s first experience of directly elected government was turbulent, as in the 2011 elections the Islamist party, Ennahda, gained the leading position in the country’s Constitutional Assembly, forming a “troika” government in coalition with two smaller centre-left parties, namely Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol. Tunisia’s transition risked a breakdown because of the assassination of two leftist opposition politicians and the broader political crisis. In order to avoid the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt Ennahda agreed to hand power to a neutral technocratic government in early 2014[1].

Elections in Tunisia are considered to be a great step toward democracy. According to Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the “European Council on Foreign Relations”, if the country’s democratic transition “continues to move forward, it would be a powerful signal that democracy can take root in the Arab”[2].

The new Constitution established a hybrid political system, where power is shared between the Parliament and President. Therefore the outcome of this parliamentary election is fundamental for the political stability of the country, as the largest party in Parliament is entitled to nominate the Prime Minister, as well as to form a government that is supposed to gain the majority support in the Assembly.

Within this framework it is possible to distinguish two front-runners, namely the Islamist Ennahda party, which gained the majority in the previous Constitutional Assembly election and leaded up the transitional coalition government before agreeing to hand up power, and Nidaa Tounes, a secular nationalist party founded in 2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi. The 87-year-old leader of Nidaa Tounes is considered to be an historical political figure: he served as minister of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs under the country’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba. He was then parliamentary speaker under the deposed leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

There are many different opinions regarding this new political actor: on one hand, Beji Caid Essebsi has been accused of seeking to restore the previous regime, while his supporters define him and his party the only credible counterweight to Ennahda. Indeed, since its foundation, the objective of Nidaa Tounes has been to balance against Ennahda’s dominance[3]. The party covered a leading role during the transitional government, being part of the Union for Tunisia opposition side. However, the party has been weakened by the controversy about the presence of some influencing figures linked to Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, including Mohamed Ghariani, its former secretary general. These links with the former regime’s officials have been justified as an attempt to involve elites with high political experience and to inherit the RCD electoral position in the country. The consequent tensions within the Union for Tunisia front led the opposition front to crumble and Nidaa Tounes to present its own list of candidates[4].

This secular nationalist party is the winner of the country’s first full parliament, gaining 85 seats, while the Islamist Ennahda party came second with 69 seats, according to official provisional results released on Monday. Among the other parties, the Free Patriotic Union and the Popular Front won 16 seats and 15 seats respectively[5]. Ennahda official, Lotfi Zitoun, told Reuters that the party “accepted this result, and congratulate the winner Nidaa Tounes”. However, he stressed the party’s proposal for a new coalition including Ennahda: “We are calling once again for the formation of a unity government in the interest of the country”[6].

Indeed, over the last years the party has been experiencing a gradual decrease in its popularity, as it has been accused of mismanaging the economy and of inexperience when governing during the transitional period. This can be considered an additional element that led the majority of the population to support the secular nationalist party. Ahmed Gaaloul, a member of the party’s shura (consultative) council, declared that it has been historically showed that the first governments to head up countries after revolutions face many difficulties, because people’s expectations are higher after a revolution. “Governing is not an easy task in those conditions because you don’t want to prove powerful when people revolted against that”, told Gaaloul to “Al Jazeera”[7]. Talks on a possible power-sharing deal are expected to begin this week. Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists have managed the transition to democracy with less animosity and belligerence. The country nevertheless is facing two significant challenges: the economic growth and the rising insurgery from rural areas.

First and foremost the new government’s objective is to foster the economic growth. Many Tunisians feel to have been left out of any economic benefits since the 2011 revolution. However the government will also need to adopt austerity measures to cut public subsidies. Despite an expected growth of between 2,3 and 2,5 percent this year, the country needs to continue slashing subsidies and to impose new taxes in order to solve the public deficit. Both the principal parties are unwilling to take the responsibility to adopt these measures, therefore the creation of a government of national unity would be the right strategy to share both power and responsibilities.

Just as urgent is the threat of Islamist militants who experienced a significant increase in terms of influence after the fall of Ben Ali. Even though Tunisians are proud of their history of liberal education and human rights, the country also has an ultra-conservative Islamist side: Tunisian militant fighters have been prominent in foreign wars and more than 3,000 are estimated to be fighting for Islamic State now in Syria and Iraq. Today, the country is characterized by a low intensity conflict, as demonstrates the contrast between Tunisian forces and suspected militants that took place on Friday, during the run-up to the elections in Oued Ellil, where Tunisian forces killed six people, including five women[8]. The terrorist threat is the second element that could foster the creation of a national unity government. For instance, at polling stations, people hoped the country’s political leadership could cooperate with the aim of stabilizing Tunisia and impeding its descent into chaos, as happened in the neighboring countries.

To sum up, multiple factors are at play: significantly lower voter turnout than 2011, especially for young people, the expectation that Nidaa Tounes might constitute the best alternative to Ennahda’s disappointing governance, and the old regime nostalgia (a typical phenomenon for countries undergoing early transition) indicate parties are still struggling to affirm their vibrant political visions, without excluding the possibility of cooperating for the country.

Whether Nidaa Tounes will create an inclusive coalition or drift toward the previous authoritarian pattern remains to be seen. For now, observers appreciate Tunisia for successfully holding another election. This success goes far beyond the simplicistic contrast between “democratic” secularists and backwards Islamists. The reality is far more complex. At the moment the most important achievement to stress is that this is the sole country moving forward, the “sole bright spot in a gloomy region”[9].

 

ALTHEA CENCIARELLI

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

 

 


[1] Bel Trew, Tunisia elections raise global hopes for Arab democracy, “CNN”, 26 October 2014.

[2] Anthony Dworkin, Tunisia’s elections and the consolidation of democracy, “European Council of Foreign Relations”, October 2014.

[3] Tarek Amara and Patrick Markey, Tunisian Islamists concede election defeat to secular party, “Reuters”, 27 October 2014.

[4] Anthony Dworkin, Tunisia’s elections and the consolidation of democracy, “European Council of Foreign Relations”, October 2014.

[5] Anon., Nidaa Tounès remporte 85 sièges au Parlement tunisien, “France 24”, 30 October 2014.

[6] Anon., Tunisia vote ‘transparent and credible’, EU observers say, “Al Arabiya News”, 28 October 2014.

[7] Ahmed El Amraoui, Tunisia’s Ennahda ‘faces defeat’ in elections, “Al Jazeera”, 28 October 2014.

[8] Anon., Obama hails ‘milestone’ Tunisia vote, “Al Arabiya News”, 26 October 2014.

[9] Monica Marks, The Tunisian election result isn’t simply a victory for secularism over Islamism, “The Guardian”, 29 October 2014.