The Labyrinth of Tunisia’s Elections
By: Nizar Maqni
Published Thursday, October 20, 2011
With a vast array of old and new political groups to choose from, many Tunisians remain undecided on who to vote for in Sunday’s Constituent Assembly elections that will help decide the country’s fate.
Despite the large number of participants in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly elections this Sunday, the parties’ campaign platforms have been strikingly similar. Over 1,500 electoral lists are competing for votes in the country’s 33 constituencies. The large number of lists and political parties involved – over 100 new parties have registered in recent months – has complicated the political spectacle. For many voters, it has become difficult to differentiate the politics of the various lists; while it may be near impossible to determine the outcome of the vote or the composition of the assembly.
The 217-member body’s main job will be to draft a new Tunisian Constitution, thereby legitimizing the state institutions that have for nine months governed the country after the ousting of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The many independent lists competing in the elections may ultimately determine the balance of forces within the assembly; and they will likely play a role in shaping any new constitution.
Tunisians want the resulting document to prevent any return to one-man rule without hindering the smooth functioning of the state. In particular, they wish to ensure the judiciary’s independence from the legislative and executive branches.
Another novel feature of Tunisian politics is the transformed nature of the relationship between the country’s former opposition parties. Sterile ideological rivalries, which were the norm from independence until the fall of Ben Ali, have given way to pragmatic interaction, hastening the formation of political and electoral alliances. This is particularly evident on the Left, where a coalition of parties and independent figures have combined to form the Modernist Democratic Pole (PDM), which is campaigning on a secular platform. Despite this newfound cohesion, the PDM is not expected to attain better than fourth place in the assembly elections.
According to opinion polls, the Islamist al-Nahda party will win the largest single share of votes. Al-Nahda’s detractors accuse it of ‘double-speak’: sounding reassuringly moderate to the general public, but hard-line to its core supporters in the mosques. Yet its 365-clause election manifesto can be searched in vain for any reference to implementing Islamic sharia, and the party promises to uphold Tunisia’s personal status law, especially with regard to women’s rights. Al-Nahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi describes the law as a “major achievement that we must preserve.” Politically speaking, al-Nahda calls for the formation of a broad coalition government “embracing all Tunisians.”
This approach has broadened al-Nahda’s grassroots appeal, which was founded in 1981 by Ghannouchi and a group of fellow intellectuals influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Banned by former president Habib Bourguiba, it was briefly allowed to resume functioning after Ben Ali took power, but from the early 1990s onwards, he persecuted it relentlessly. These days its activists tend to liken its thinking to that of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Many Tunisians seeking a ‘centrist’ alternative to both the Islamists and the old regime seem inclined to opt for the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL), or Ettakatol, led by physician Mustapha Ben Jaafar. This party was formed during Ben Ali’s rule and has had legal status since 2002. Ben Jaafar’s popularity as a critic of the regime was bolstered after Ben Ali’s ouster, when Ben Jaafar refused to serve in the first transitional government formed by Mohamed al-Ghannouchi, on the grounds that it contained too many figures from the old regime. The FDTL is viewed as a center-left party in the social democratic mold and is a member of the Socialist International. But they also call for Tunisia’s Arab and Islamic identity to be enshrined. In the Constituent Assembly elections, FDTL has campaigned in favor of a combined parliamentary/presidential system of government, and a ‘complete break’ with the former regime.
Also presenting itself as a ‘modern’ alternative to al-Nahda from the center-left is the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) headed by Ahmed Nejib Chebbi. It has a liberal economic outlook, and has been accused of seeking to co-opt former members of the now-disbanded ruling party, the RCD, in its quest to expand its support base. The party was part of the legally-sanctioned opposition under Ben Ali, but its public standing was dealt a blow when it joined Ghannouchi’s first post-Ben Ali administration.
Another main contender is the Congress for the Republic party (CPR) founded by the veteran dissident and human rights campaigner Moncef Marzouki. Despite Marzouki’s leftist credentials, he is close to al-Nahda and supports Tunisia’s Arab and Islamic identity. Some observers expect the two groups to form a political alliance in the near future.
While these former opposition groups are likely to emerge from the elections with the collective power to dominate proceedings in the Constituent Assembly, new political forces of a different nature have also been emerging in the country.
One is a coalition of 47 new parties, called the Republican Alliance, that have surfaced from the vestiges of the Ben Ali’s RCD part and are seeking to win back the former ruling party’s electoral base. The highest profile of these are the El Watan (Homeland) party led by former tourism minister Mohamed Jegham, and Al Moubadara (The Initiative) founded by Ben Ali’s last foreign minister, Kamel Morjane.
Paralleling the rise of these new ‘opposition’ groups are that of ‘contract parties’ — such as Afek Tounes (Tunisia’s Horizons) led by businessman and former transitional government member Yassine Brahim, and the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) formed by young tycoon Slim Riahi, whose lavish campaign spending has been a cause of huge controversy. Suspicions have spread of attempted vote-buying and influence-peddling by these well-funded outfits.
In contrast, the electoral fortunes of parties with a strong ideological bent – particularly those with programs based on Marxist perspectives – appear poor. Although some of them may have earned considerable credibility for years of struggling against dictatorship, they have failed to translate that into a tangible presence on the new Tunisian political scene.
Tunisians may not lack for choice facing this diverse array of political groups, but they have yet to make up their minds. Just days before voting, opinion polls showed a large proportion of voters remained undecided. The contestants appear to have everything to play for until the very last moment.
This article is an edited translation form the Arabic Edition.