It is a few days until the first democratic elections in the history of Tunisia take place, following the revolution that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and opened the doors to political freedom and the formation of over a hundred parties. Only a few of these parties are competing over seats at the National Constituent Assembly, to replace the current interim government.
Based on the most recent opinion polls, it has become clear that most of the voters are attracted to less than ten political parties, most notably The Renaissance Movement, the Parti Démocrate Progressiste, Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés, The Congress for the Republic, The Initiative Party, Tunisian Prospects Party, Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de Tunisie and the Modernist Alliance.
Pre-14 January Opposition
The Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP)—a centrist party—is considered one of the most important and active political parties in Tunisia. The party was established in 1981, under the name of the Progressive Socialist Rally, by a number of leftists and human rights activists—most of whom were apprehended in 1983. Later, in 1988, the Progressive Socialist Rally gained legal recognition following the rise to power of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The party held its first conference that same year and took part in almost every electoral venture until it was denied public funding in 1998. The party was renamed in 2001 and is still led by its founder Ahmed Najib Chebbi, a Tunisian attorney and a politician renowned for his opposition to the former President Ben Ali’s regime.
Another leading party is Ennahdha (The Renaissance Movement), which leads the most recent opinion polls. Ennahdha is an Islamist party, no stranger to controversy, which stands accused of acts of violence in Tunisia in the eighties. The party was founded in 1981 by Rashid Al-Ghannouchi and other intellectuals who were influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in. After the party was granted permission to practice their political activities in 1987—towards the beginning of Bin Ali’s rule—the party suffered persecution especially following the legislative elections of 1989, when the independents supported by Ennahdha won 17 percent of the votes. In the nineties, around 30,000 Islamic activists and followers of the party were arrested. Last January, and after 20 years in exile in the United Kingdom, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia.
The third crucial opposition party in Tunisia is the leftist Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés (FDTL). The party was founded on 25 October 2002, but was not officially recognized until six years later. It was subsequently denied access to various electoral events, the last of which were the presidential elections of 2009. This measure was also applied to a number of other political parties, which were then known as the radical opposition, including the 18th of October Coalition. This coalition of leftist and Islamist parties is regarded with suspicion by the FDTL. Dr. Mostafa Bin Ja’far, founder and chairman of the FDTL, attacked the group following the revolution—stating that their funding was not transparent and that their advocacy towards a religious state (something that even Ennahdha has not given a definite position towards) is questionable. Dr. Bin Ja’far practices medicine and has been an active member of the student movement and the Tunisian Association for Human Rights Preservation.
Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de Tunisie (PCOT) is considered one of the most oppressed and beleaguered political groups, the leaders and activists having been apprehended and imprisoned on several occasions. The PCOT is the second most active Marxist-Leninist party in Tunisia—after the Ettajdid movement (formerly the Communist Party). It was founded on the 3 January, 1986, and has had a strong presence at student-related venues through the party’s youth wing, the Union of Communist Youth of Tunisia—however, this student branch has been weakened with the appearance of the General Union of Students in Tunisia. The PCOT, which has an Albanian orientation, is also very active at the Tunisian General Union of Workers. The party has become used to carrying out their political activities in secrecy, since it was only legalized after the fall of Ben Ali. Hamma Hammami was the only party leader to be heavily criticized by most political parties in Tunisia, for accepting coalition with Ennahdha in 2005.
Similarly, the leftist Congrès pour la République (CPR) has attracted a great deal of attention by association with Ennahdha, an association which Dr. Munsif Almarzouqi, chairman of the CPR, has neither denied nor confirmed. The CPR was legalized following the revolution—on 9 March to be precise—after a decade of illicit and secret activities. The party was founded in 2001, and its activities prior to the revolution chiefly revolved around calling for civil disobedience and for the formation of political resistance fronts. Moreover, the party and its chairman were amongst the leading participants in the 18th October Coalition.
Yet another group, highly active in the current electoral campaign is the Pole Democratique Moderniste Tunisie (PDM). This alliance consists of significant parties who co-administer a modernist social scheme. One of these is the Ettajdid movement (previously the Tunisian Communist Party), which is considered the most prestigious leftist party in Tunisia. The Communist Party was formed in 1923, before independence, and was banned by Habib Bourguiba in 1968 for about two decades. The ban was lifted in 1981 and at its tenth conference in 1993 the party was renamed. Ettajdid’s founding document states that it is a “democratic party, open to the various progressive endeavors in Tunisia, the Arab World and the globe. The party considers Socialism as the main horizon to seek, paying special attention to the socially vulnerable classes without having to create a separatist party consisting of those classes.” The party nominated its Secretary General, Ahmad Ibrahim, as its presidential candidate in the 2009 presidential elections. Ibrahim is a university professor who took part, alongside Ahmed Najib Chebbi, founder of the PDP, in the first interim government at the wake of the revolution.
Pre-14 January “Loyalty” Parties
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those parties which the Tunisians consider loyalists. These parties were observed to not have a strong stance against the former regime. Under Ben Ali they referred to themselves as the National Opposition, but seemed chiefly to serve as a critic of the rest of the political parties in Tunisia. The National Opposition parties are in a state of respite due to the bad reputation attached to their leaders and followers, which has obliged them to shy away from confrontation in the current climate. This has led to a number of political splits and emergency conferences which have weakened their leadership and caused the formation of further smaller factions, most notably, the Popular Unity Movement—with a nationalist orientation—the Socialist Liberal Party, the Democratic Socialist Party, the Progressive Green Party, and the Nationalist Unionist Democratic Association—which was credited for its statement that condemned the shooting of anti-regime protestors prior to the downfall of Ben Ali.
The Tunisian revolution sparked a flood of new parties, which have the aim of entering the political scene by the front door. One of the most prominent is the Majd (Glory) Party, led by the former leader of Ennahdha, Abdel Wahab Hani. Then there is the Tunisian Labor Party—a worker’s party that originates from the General Union of Tunisian Workers, led by unionist activist Abdel Jalil Albadawi. The political leadership of the Tunisian Labor Party consists of current and former union officials, which has led to criticism of vested interest during the campaign.
The Nationalist Democratic Movement is also considered amongst the most dominant in the media. The Nationalist Democrats consider themselves as “a group of intellectuals who do not believe in organized political action.” These people had been active at the General Union of Tunisian Students in the seventies, then at the General Union of Tunisian Workers. The party witnessed a number of political splits. However, most of these factions regrouped after the January revolution. The movement was granted official recognition on 22 March, 2011, and it is now led by lawyer Shokri Bil’eed.
Other nationalist parties, with the Pan-Arab Talee’a Party at its lead, were granted official recognition on 18 March. Talee’a is a progressive Arabist party led by renowned Tunisian political figure Khair Dein Alsawabibi. Further nationalist groups include the Progressive Unionist People’s Movement, a Nasserite party now led by lawyer Khalid Alkreishi—after he succeeded former chairman of the Lawyers Union, Bashir Alsaid. This movement was a result of a merger between two political movements; the People’s Movement and the Progressive Unionist Movement.
At the other end of the spectrum lies a completely different entity. Al-Mubadara (Initiative) Party has direct links with Ben Ali’s former party, the Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD). Al-Mubadara is at the center of the political arena and is expected to win a significant number of votes—as it can attract most of the votes from the members of the former ruling party. The party, formed by former Foreign Minister Kamal Morgan, advocates for the reunification of all Tunisians regardless of their differences, but is subject to a predictably high level of criticism.
This leaves the Tunisian Prospects Party—which is also subject to accusations of being “a remnant of the former regime.” It is rumored in Tunisia that the Tunisian Prospects Party is part of a dialogue with the other centrist parties, particularly with the PDP, in order to form a coalition to confront the Islamists after the elections. One of the Prospects Party’s most dominant figures is Yassin Ibrahim, the Tunisian Minister of Transport.