Middle East & North Africa

No, Tunisia Will Not Slide Back Into a Dictatorship



November 23, 2014 17:02 EDT

Tunisians voted for Nidaa Tounes to ensure the defeat of Ennahda, an Islamist party that led the country after Ben Ali’s ouster.

On October 26, Tunisia held its first parliamentary elections since an uprising ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. US President Barack Obama congratulated “the people of Tunisia on the democratic election of a new parliament — an important milestone in Tunisia’s historic political transition.” Due to exceptional efforts by security and military forces, the elections were held without any major incidents. While already gearing up for the presidential election on November 23, the parliamentary results were surprising and will certainly change the country’s political landscape.

Surprising Results

In the run-up to the parliamentary vote, Nidaa Tounes, a secular party, was not expected to beat the Islamist Ennahda, which won the most seats in the 2011 Constituent Assembly election. Nidaa Tounes’ victory can be explained by two factors. First, Ennahda faced many internal and external difficulties during its two years in office following Ben Ali’s ouster. Financial difficulties and terrorist attacks increased criticism of the party and led to its declining popularity among Tunisians. Second, Nidaa Tounes attracted many voters who were opposed to Islamism and aimed to eliminate Ennahda from power. Nidaa Tounes became the “useful vote,” in that people voted for the party even if it was not their preferred choice. This tactic succeeded to regroup a number of votes in favor of the party. Kais Saied, an expert in constitutional law, considered this a “sanction vote,” since the goal was to defeat Ennahda.

Another surprise was the party that won the third most seats: the Free Patriotic Union (FPU). The FPU is a new party founded and led by Slim Riahi, a 42-year-old businessman. The party won 16 seats in parliament, while many well-known parties gained less than five seats. Riahi was accused of buying votes. However, he contested this accusation, arguing that his promises for investment around the country were sufficient to convince Tunisian voters.

Nonetheless, all parties considered the legislative elections to be a success. This was reinforced by amicable reactions from the two main parties. Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, congratulated Nidaa Tounes’ leader, Beji Caid el-Sebsi, for winning the elections. This reinforced the peaceful character of the Tunisian democratic transition, especially when compared to other countries in the region.

Post-Election Issues

The parliamentary elections raise three important issues for Tunisia’s future. First, the government formation and composition is still unclear, since no party has the majority and, therefore, a coalition is required. At the time of writing, a coalition government has yet to be announced. This may change after the presidential election’s results are known.

Nidaa Tounes’ success has been called a “hard victory,” as it still depends on a coalition to form a government. But if the party ends up leading the next government and if el-Sebsi wins the presidential election, Nidaa Tounes will have gained huge political powers.

In Tunisia’s current political landscape, it is hard to envision a coalition between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, but cooperation between the two parties is possible. With its 16 seats in parliament, the FPU is waiting to be sought after by Nidaa Tounes or Ennahda. The Popular Front, a leftist party with 15 seats, is completely opposed to a coalition with the Islamists, but has economic and social policies that are different from Nidaa Tounes’ plans. Some constitutional experts argue that in case of an impasse, parliament can select a technocratic government.

Second, some politicians expressed fears about Nidaa Tounes, accusing it of including former members of the Democratic Constitutional Rally — Ben Ali’s former party. Even el-Sebsi, with his experience and charisma, was accused of participating in undemocratic regimes prior to the uprising. The Nidaa Tounes leader was a minister under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, and he occupied the post of parliamentary president under Ben Ali. He was also the prime minister of the first transitional government after the 2011 uprising. However, el-Sebsi declared that he supports democracy and founded Nidaa Tounes to balance political forces in Tunisia.

Third, the results of the legislative elections have increased the importance of the presidential vote. Ennahda has no candidates, whereas el-Sebsi has become the one who is most likely to win — possibly even in the first round. Therefore, Ennahda has focused on lending support to an independent candidate in order to defeat el-Sebsi and to avoid the political domination by Nidaa Tounes. In the end, Ennahda’s Shura Council decided on November 7 not to impose one particular candidate for its partisans; the only recommendation it has given is to vote for an independent runner.

The Main Conclusions

The legislative elections increased rivalry between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes and has weakened many known parties, particularly Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. It also showed that Ennahda had overestimated its chances to win the parliamentary elections. Its decision not to field a candidate for the presidential elections seems risky, as el-Sebsi is now likely to win.

Crucially, priorities for voters are not economic or social. Instead, security has been of utmost concern. Accusations by secular and leftist parties that Ennahda was lenient on Salafist movements weakened the party’s position in the parliamentary elections and contributed to Nidaa Tounes’ victory. However, Islamism is still an important factor that will influence Tunisian politics.

Nidaa Tounes’ success has been called a “hard victory,” as it still depends on a coalition to form a government. But if the party ends up leading the next government and if el-Sebsi wins the presidential election, Nidaa Tounes will have gained huge political powers. However, the party’s leaders have criticized Ennahda for fearing an eventual political domination, arguing that Tunisia’s new constitution guards against dictatorships.

With the “useful vote” slogan, Nidaa Tounes has managed to influence decisions at the ballot box. But the question remains: Will el-Sebsi win the presidential election?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.  


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