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Spring Into Summer? The Tunisian Elections

Tunisia will soon complete the transition begun when President Ben Ali fled in January 2011. Under a new constitution, it will elect a parliament (via regional lists) this month, and then a president.

Although the constitution gives most power to parliament, most attention is focused on the easier-to-understand presidential election. Even a Tunisian newspaper asked last month why the parliamentary elections were neglected. Their results could surprise, since polls have been banned since early July; and, reflecting the post-revolutionary desire for press freedom, there are only limited (and recent) media restrictions.

Stability and the consolidation of democracy require a fairly broad-based government, so another coalition (including Ennahda, but perhaps in a less dominant role), and a secular President such as Essebsi, would not be a bad outcome.

Tunisia needs a government with a strong mandate. It must tackle the issues that ignited the revolution and those neglected since. The former include high youth unemployment and neglect of remoter regions. In addition, despite 3% growth, there are severe macroeconomic imbalances and serious security problems from Islamist extremists (especially in border and mountain areas).

In 2011, after a 23-year dictatorship and the earlier, authoritarian Bourguiba regime, democracy had trouble getting started. Many new parties joined those previously banned and the few tolerated by the previous regime. However, people felt disconnected from political debate: only about half of potential voters registered, and voters were sometimes swayed by very unrealistic political promises.

The Constituent Assembly elected in October 2011 produced a three-party coalition dominated by the Islamist party Ennahda (with 35% of votes and 41% of seats, not the majority often reported). The next two years saw more acrimonious constitutional debate on topics such as the role of Islam or presidential versus parliamentary systems, instead of attention to the issues that ignited the revolution.

The coalition was rightly accused of insufficient zeal on security (partly reflecting the range of Islamist opinions inside Ennahda, which had operated underground while its leaders were in exile). Polls do not indicate large support for extreme Islamist positions (unrepresented in the 2011 elections), but Tunisia has extremists and returned jihadis.

Both Islamist and secular minds in Tunisia were focused by last year’s Egyptian backlash against the Moslem Brotherhood and Army takeover, by the assassinations of two left-wing secular politicians and by pressure from civil society (including the union federation UGTT). The constitution, (approved this January, three years after the revolution) enshrines equality of men and women and specific roles for an opposition, with relatively modest references to Islamic values. There will be parliamentary government, with a limited role for the president.

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With the constitution approved, a technocratic government replaced the coalition. Parliamentary elections are on October 26, and presidential ones on November 23 and December 28 (if needed).  So far, the public appears unconvinced that politicians share

their concerns. However, increased voter registrations may reflect growing recognition of the importance of voting.

The plethora of parties has not disappeared, but some alliances have formed. The most important, Nidaa Tounes, which is broadly pro-business and secular, is led by 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi (who was interim Prime Minister for much of 2011 and a cabinet minister under Bourguiba). Rachid Ghannouchi is Ennahda’s leader. Ennahda’s secular partners campaign separately – the Congrès pour la République of interim President Marzouki (secular but closely linked to Ennahda) and Assembly President Ben Jaafar’s Ettakol (the most economically literate coalition party). Hamma Hammani leads a left-wing alliance, the Popular Front. An earlier ban on members of Ben Ali’s governments has been generally ignored.

The polls have shown Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda as the main forces. Before the Egyptian coup they were at loggerheads. They now sometimes appear to recognize the need for power-sharing, but remain rivals. The parliamentary elections should show the relative strengths of the players, and how broad a coalition is feasible and desirable.

If all goes well, the presidential elections could be anti-climactic. However, public attention so far has concentrated on those elections, with 27 presidential candidates (many marginal) accepted by the electoral authority.

Tunisia will have a problem if that focus prevents the parliamentary campaign from addressing the country’s challenges. The polling ban and the threat of media misuse increase the risk of unpleasant surprises. However, after three years of essentially uncensored media, Tunisians may not believe all they see, hear or read.

Even with polls, predicting the parliamentary results would be difficult, given the electoral system. Ennahda has a large base of supporters to explain its complications to voters, and can be expected to do well (though not necessarily better than last time, since holding office did not enhance the party’s reputation). However, their opponents are not paying as much attention to the parliamentary elections. One possible unpleasant surprise would be a parliament where coalition-building is difficult. That in turn could push the presidential election into a ‘referendum’ to increase presidential powers, which many players other than Ennahda would have preferred.


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The parliamentary elections may clarify the presidential outlook. Ghannouchi says that Ennahda wants a consensual President, although some believe it will support someone against Essebsi, who is running. (An age limit was waived for the first election!) Presidential polling showed Essebsi leading a very split field. Without first-round consolidation (perhaps if Ennahda supports someone), it would be surprising if Essebsi missed the runoff. The second round will depend on who else is on the ballot.

Politicians need to explain to the public that they need to focus on the parliamentary elections because, unlike in the past or in most neighbouring countries, the power will be with parliament not the president. A clear result on October 26 may depend on it. Stability and the consolidation of democracy require a fairly broad-based government, so another coalition (including Ennahda, but perhaps in a less dominant role), and a secular President such as Essebsi, would not be a bad outcome. A successful conclusion of Tunisia’s Arab Spring—the first sustained full democracy in the Arab world—would be welcomed in the West, especially in view of subsequent events further east.

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