November 6, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Tunisia’s Elections: Triumphs and Challenges

• Tunisia’s parliamentary elections last month saw gains for the country’s secular party, Nidaa Tounes (NA), which won 85 of the Parliament’s 217 seats

• As NA seeks to form a government, an exclusively secular coalition risks increasing polarization and spurring unrest, especially among Salafi elements

• The diverse ideologies of secular parties and a strong Islamist party in opposition would make it difficult to propose and pass legislation

• Frictions between NA’s various ideological currents risk destabilizing the party from within, especially if its uniting figurehead has to leave his responsibilities, should he win election later this month.


Tunisia's post-Arab Spring transition to democracy has been comparatively successful owing to its relatively homogenous society, small size, and dearth of military involvement in politics—characteristics that helped it avoid tragic scenarios that unfolded following Egypt and neighboring Libya’s revolutions.

Earlier this year the parliament drafted a new constitution and Tunisia held its second free and fair elections on October 26—a regional exemplar of political inclusion—in which the main secular party, Nidaa Tounes, won 85 of the parliament's 217 seats, making it the largest party followed by the Islamist Ennahda party’s 69 seats. In a demonstration of civil political process, Ennahda’s leader Rashid al-Ghanushi (Rachid Ghannouchi) reached out to Nidaa Tounes’ leader Beji Caid Essebsi to offer congratulations on his party’s win in what Ennahda officials termed “transparent, democratic elections.” With Nidaa Tounes’ representing the largest bloc of the new parliament, Tunisia’s political scene has transformed, having previously been dominated by strong Islamists and weak secular parties.

Nidaa Tounes was created in mid-2012 to unite secular currents around a “modern” project to counterbalance Ennahda. It consists of various ideological elements, which include leftists, trade unionists, independents, members of Tunisia's destour (“constitution”) movement as well as former members of the Constituent Democratic Rally (RCD) party of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Nidaa Tounes' integration of senior members of the RCD, inducing Mohammed Ghariani, its Secretary General at the time of the revolution, is controversial amongst Islamists as well as many pro-revolution secularists who fear that Ben Ali's RCD apparatus might be revived. If former RCD members—which are numerically the strongest bloc within Nidaa Tounes—start dominating the party, it will likely trigger unrest among conservative sectors of the society, particularly the Salafis.

Nidaa Tounes success in the election derives primarily from the perception that it is the only secular alternative to check Islamism. Its leader, former interim Prime Minister Essebsi, is perceived as a figure capable of uniting various secular currents. However, it is unclear if Nidaa Tounes would be able to survive without its leadership figure, given that frictions within the party has intensified over the past month, leading several senior members to resign. A key risk is that Essebsi might have to give up all party responsibility should he be elected president in elections later this month. At the moment, he is one of the most popular candidates. Similar risks result from his advanced age (87) as well as suspected illness, which most party members continue to deny.

As Nidaa Tounes has not an absolute majority in parliament, it will need to team up with other parties to form a coalition. In total, Nidaa Tounes is running short of 24 seats, but no other party has this leverage independently except for Ennahda. While the Islamists have signaled that they are open to joining a coalition, Nidaa Tounes at this point seeks to team up solely with other secular parties. It fears alienating its electorate otherwise, given that it has primarily campaigned on anti-Islamism. Such a coalition is possible, but would likely require considerable discussion and negotiation of competing interests among its members.

The exclusion of the Islamists from a coalition would deepen polarization within the country, a development which has already led to major political crisis and reinforced security challenges the past two years. This would make deep socioeconomic reforms and effective responses to security challenges—such as the over 3,000 Tunisians fighting in Iraq and Syria, and several hundred returning home—even more difficult. Tunisia's future remains uncertain, despite successful elections. However, even with the challenges in forming an effective government, Tunisia continues to make progress towards political maturity that so far remains elusive for much of the  region.


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