After the first free parliamentary elections in Tunisia

New horizons or back to square one?

Does the election victory of Nidaa Tounes mean a return to old mechanisms, cronyism and entrenched power structures? Or will the political alliance of convenience succeed in setting a new course for Tunisia's future, fostering socially acceptable compromises and swiftly tackling urgently required economic reforms? By Isabel Schäfer

Three years after the first free elections for the Constituent Assembly (ANC) in October 2011, Tunisian citizens have once again cast their ballots. After an initial period experiencing the government led by the Islamist Ennahda Party (2011–2013), the majority of Tunisians are now longing instead for a return to stability and security and no longer envision a political course predominantly determined by religion.

Most voters evidently hope that this more stable and secure environment will be brought about by the Nidaa Tounes Party, a kind of melting pot for economic liberals, supporters and representatives of the old regime, as well as trade unionists and a few intellectuals.

Even left-wing liberals and intellectuals exhorted their countrymen to vote "tactically" – that is, for Nidaa Tounes – with the primary aim of preventing the Ennahda Party from achieving a majority. This strategy seems to have worked.

Capturing 85 of a total of 217 seats, Nidaa Tounes has emerged the clear winner in this parliamentary poll. Ennahda won 69 seats and the Union Patriotique Libre (UPL) 16 seats. The UPL was founded by businessman Slim Riahi, owner of the "Club Africain de Football".

Surprising gains were made by a few smaller parties such as Hamma Mammami's far-left Front Populaire with 15 seats and Afek Tounes with eight seats. The clear losers are the social democratic Ettakatol Party of ANC President Mustafa Ben Jafaar (1 seat), who is also running for president, and the CPR Party (four seats) of current President Moncef Marzouki. Many other smaller parties also performed comparatively poorly, for example the Parti Républicain.

Islamists punished

Ennahda officially conceded its defeat, which was worse than the party leadership under Rachid Ghannouchi and Secretary-General Ali Laarayedh had expected. They attributed the lost votes to the fact the party came to power too soon during the country's difficult transition period and hence made some mistakes. The voters are now punishing them for this, they say.

Rachid Ghannouchi (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
A political wake-up call for Rachid Ghannouchi: Ennahda has thus far been the dominant force in the Constituent Assembly formed in October 2011, but has recently lost public support

The economic situation has indeed deteriorated rather than improved, and the political murders of the two opposition politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, as well as diffuse relations with radical Salafists and an increase in terrorist activities are all associated with Ennahda's term in office. Despite everything, however, Ennahda remains the second-strongest political force in the country and continues its pursuit of power.

Participation in the elections, which took place from 24–26 October 2014 at 11,000 polling stations, was rather greater than expected at 69%. Nevertheless many, in particular the younger generation, stayed away from the poll out of disappointment, apathy or disinterest.

Voting behaviour however varied considerably from region to region. While voter turnout was relatively high in the more urban and wealthier areas in the north and on the east coast, fewer came out to vote in the disadvantaged and poorer regions in the south and west.

Peaceful and fair electoral process

The elections were on the whole peaceful, fair and free, although attacks had been expected and security (police and army presence) was correspondingly high. Both the independent electoral commission ISIE and the media authority HAICA confirmed that, with a few exceptions, there were no irregularities. An international election observation mission of the EU was also on hand.

Polling station in Tunisia (photo: DW)
Litmus test for Tunisia's fledgling democracy: participation in the elections, which took place from 24–26 October 2014 at 11,000 polling stations, was rather greater than expected at 69%. Nevertheless many, in particular the younger generation, stayed away from the poll out of disappointment, apathy or disinterest.

In the run-up to the elections, a coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda had been thought likely. Now, buoyed by its electoral success, Nidaa Tounes leaders are keeping their options open. An absolute majority of 109 of the 217 seats is required to form a government. Nidaa Tounes will now be entrusted with coalition talks and the formation of the government, but a final decision is expected only after the presidential elections on 23 November 2014.

A coalition with the Front Populaire, with which Nidaa Tounes has major differences of opinion in terms of economic and social policy, or with the UPL, is currently thought to be unlikely. On the other hand, the option of a "democratic front" made up of Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes and other smaller parties and independents would mean risking an internal tug of war, with too many players pulling in different directions.

"National dialogue" on trial

Regardless of the outcome of the coalition question, the General Secretary of Nidaa Tounes, Taieb Baccouche, is already being touted as possible head of state. Apart from the extent of their participation in government, the smaller opposition parties and civil society still have an important role to play. Will a "national dialogue" continue to exist? That the political crisis of 2013 could be overcome is not least due to this process (involving the Tunisian General Labour Union or UGTT, among others). The trade unions envisage an institutionalisation of the national dialogue initiative in the form of a forum for seeking consensus. It is however questionable how realistic this vision is.

The electoral victory of Nidaa Tounes signifies that two steps forward have been taken in the transition process (fair and free elections on the basis of the new constitution and a democratic change of governing parties), but also one step back – in the direction of the old regime. This is because Béji Caid Essebsi (87) embodies the father figure who "will return everything back to normal".

Béji Caid Essebsi (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Return of the old powers: "The electoral victory of Nidaa Tounes signifies that two steps forward have been taken in the transition process, but also one step back – in the direction of the old regime. This is because Béji Caid Essebsi (87) embodies the father figure who "will 'return everything back to normal'," writes Schäfer

He was already active in politics at Bourguibas' side, as well as in the RCD Party under Ben Ali, and most recently as one of the transition prime ministers after the revolution of 2011. With his fatherly discourse, Essebsi, who founded Nidaa Tounes in 2012, appeals to many Tunisians who are feeling insecure in these uncertain times. Now he even has a good chance of winning the presidency at the end of the year.

Do these election results perhaps even mean a relapse to the time before the Tunisian revolution? Things would be different than in Egypt though, as the security sector in Tunisia was not fundamentally reformed after the events of 2011.

In sum, however, the course of the elections and their results look quite promising for the further development of the political situation in Tunisia. The political scene has now been "rebalanced" in a certain sense, in contrast to Ennahda's sweeping election victory in 2011.

Relief among secular elites

Many Tunisians – members of the elite but also those from the broad-based middle class – are relieved that the Islamists have been pushed back onto the democratic path, as they had been fearful of a continued process of Islamisation within society and the political system.

Now it is time for important economic and social reforms to be initiated. The particularly urgent issue of youth unemployment has not seen any improvement since 2011. Protest potential still exists in various economic sectors and in public services, as evidenced by the recent strikes.

And in addition to its socio-economic challenges, Tunisia is still plagued by security problems (the impact of the Libya conflict, violent extremists on the border with Algeria, radicalised fighters returning from Syria, etc.).

The next stage of the challenge is electing a president in November (1st round) and December (2nd round) 2014. Tunisia has passed a further milestone in its process of democratic and peaceful transition and for the time being, can look to the future with optimism.

 

By Isabel Schäfer

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

 

Isabel Schäfer is a political scientist and lecturer at Berlin's Humboldt University.

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