Democracy in the Making

Tunisia's new Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa addresses the handover ceremony in Tunis on January 29, 2014 after the North African country's parliament approved a technocratic caretaker government tasked with leading the country into fresh elections. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia's new Prime Minister, Mehdi Jomaa, addresses the handover ceremony in Tunis on January 29, 2014, after the North African country's parliament approved a technocratic caretaker government tasked with leading the country into fresh elections. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia’s next general elections will mark the end of its transitional period—but it is still unclear when elections will take place, what parties will run for office and which of those parties will lead in the polls. And although it is clear they will differ from the elections held in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, it is not yet certain how.

It was only after Ben Ali’s departure that politics entered the public sphere in Tunisia, which makes it difficult to predict the outcome of any vote. In 2011, for instance, few expected Ennahda’s overwhelming victory, and hardly anyone thought that Al-Aridha, which came third to Ennahda, would make it to the National Constituent Assembly. Moreover, many local polling companies are biased towards one party or another and have a long tradition of falsifying their reports.

Although Tunisia's Independent Higher Authority for Elections was formed in 2012, replacing an earlier post-revolutionary elections body, the Constituent Assembly chose to dissolve the board and create a new one, which only happened in January this year. It is thought that it will be March before this new board starts its work of organizing the general elections. Furthermore, electoral experts agree that an election takes between seven to nine months of preparation. The elections are, therefore, unlikely to be held before the end of 2014.

Tunisia’s electoral law is also yet to be drafted. That will be one of the first tasks of the recently reformed Constituent Assembly, which is currently studying bills proposed by civil society groups and political parties. There has been a tendency so far to reproduce the 2011 text with minor modifications; but not all agree with this method. Given that Tunisia’s Assembly consists mainly of independents—a headache for lobbying and consensus—stormy debates can be expected over the issue.

By the time all these obstacles can be overcome and Tunisia’s general elections take place, Tunisian society will have had a four-year political education. There is growing political awareness in the country; the nationalist, Islamist and socialist movements in particular exercise strong influence. Civil society organizations, including the quartet that negotiated the end of the troika government and the transition to an interim government ahead of the elections, will also continue to play a big role. But it is, of course, the political parties—the more than fifty official ones, plus any that may form in the run-up to the vote—that will be key to Tunisia’s political future.

Major parties

Tunisia’s political scene has undoubtedly changed since 2011, most prominently in that the growing force is now the ancien régime. The troika---the alliance of Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties---that formed the last government has seen its popularity decline. The Centrist Democratic Party has become the Al-Joumhouri Party and lost most of its constituency, while Al-Aridha has transformed into Al-Mahaba. The extreme Left and pan-Arabists, meanwhile, have combined to form Al-Jabha Al-Sha'abiyya.

The ancien régime, although insignificant in 2011, is back. Three opposing parties compete to represent it: Nidaa Tounes, Al-Haraka Al-Doustouria and Al-Moubadara.

Nidaa Tounes, or the Call for Tunisia, was, until recently, a catch-all party, according to one of its leaders. Founded in 2012 by Beji Caid El-Sebsi—a former Bourguiba functionary and post-Ben Ali prime minister—it gathered the remnants of Ben Ali's now-banned Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, as well as some Leftist and syndicalist figures. Nidaa Tounes led the Union for Tunisia, a secular electoral alliance—including Al-Joumhouri (which has left the Union), Al-Massar and two others—which later extended into the National Salvation Front alliance with several other parties. But Nidaa’s alliances are weakening as its RCD affiliations become stronger.

In direct competition with Nidaa Tounes is Al-Haraka Al-Doustouria, led by Ben Ali's former prime minister, Hamed Karoui. Unlike Nidaa, Al-Haraka openly proclaims its RCD heritage, which has helped seduce the RCD base that felt pushed aside after Ben Ali’s overthrow.

Nidaa’s second main rival in the “neo-RCD” camp is Al-Moubadara, led by Kamel Morjène, who was both defense and later foreign minister under Ben Ali. Formed only in December 2013, Morjène has said from the start that his new party has the same ideology as both Nidaa and Al-Haraka, and that he could foresee uniting with one or both of them in the future.

Just as popular Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is expected to do if he runs for Egypt’s presidency, the ancien régime in Tunisia will likely resort to nationalist propaganda in their campaign: three years of revolution could never completely dismantle a century-old propaganda machine. The “neo-RCD” will continue to brandish its secularism for the international community and the Tunisian secular elite, but it will speak of “Tunisian Islam” and respect for local traditions when addressing the masses at home. The three parties are likely to present “back-to-the-past” solutions to post-Arab Spring challenges.

Ennahda is another strong party—it formed the first post-revolution government as the leading member of the troika—and it is almost certain to run in the next elections. Considered a moderate Islamist party, in its 2011 electoral campaign Ennahda promised social reforms based on tradition, much like the former regime, and economic growth. The 2014 Constitution adopted under Ennahda’s leadership was, in some views, even more secular than the one written under Habib Bourguiba, the founder and first president of the Republic of Tunisia. During its time in power many saw the party as too conciliatory with figures from the past, as well as with the opposition. Ennahda was also said to be very sensitive to pressure from the West and had a moderate stance on social issues. This angered its hardcore Islamist and young revolutionary supporters, many of whom have since resigned from the party.

Ennahda may be split into two or more parts this year. The economic fiasco that took place under its rule will also likely see it lose many votes, as will the exacerbation of security problems in 2013. But the party will no doubt showcase the Constitution as one of its successes. Bragging about its conciliatory pragmatism, Ennahda will also likely decry the growing counter-revolution and accuse it of sabotaging the work of the former troika government. The party will continue to reach out to secular allies (partly to please the international community) and, on the international level, will continue to try to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The other two parties in the former troika camp, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, lost much of their support after joining forces with Ennahda. But these parties have strength in the positions of their leaders: the CPR's Moncef Marzouki currently holds the prestigious title of President of the Republic, while Ettakatol's Mustapha Ben Jaafar is the president of the Constituent Assembly.

Marzouki has alternated between different personas during his presidency. He was a skilled diplomat here and a revolutionary figure there, pompous sometimes and unassuming on other occasions, a tough leader one day but weak and marginal the day after. What his detractors claim to be foolishness and a lack of manners—what others identify as populism and realist policies—should appeal to the masses and youth during the next campaign. His Congress for the Republic party will likely build its electoral campaign on this legacy and on its semi-revolutionary, albeit only mildly influential, decisions in the Constituent Assembly and in government.

Ettakatol has always played a conciliatory role, rushing after coalitions and alliances. Although its leader, Ben Jaafar, is portrayed by the opposition as Ennahda's puppet, his decision to suspend the Assembly against Ennahda's will in 2013 earned him some credibility. And after the new constitution was ratified, he was nicknamed the "Father of the Constitution". The middle class, tired of heated political debates, might find Ben Jaafar to be a father figure and the quiet, albeit diminished, politics of his party charming.

Al-Joumhouri’s popularity is likely to continue to decline, and it will need to find allies if it is to survive. Formed after the last elections from a number of Centrist parties, Al-Joumhouri withdrew from the Union for Tunisia late last year after a series of disagreements, including over the nomination of their next presidential candidate. Ennahda may offer the party a hand by employing the same tactic it used with the Congress for the Republic in 2011 by presenting Al-Joumhouri's leader, Ahmed Najib Chebbi, as its presidential candidate.

Compared with the stance taken in 2011 by the old parties that now form Al-Joumhouri, this time the party will likely be less aggressive towards Ennahda than it will be towards the ancien régime. However, an important part of Al-Joumhouri's electorate, the Francophone bourgeoisie, would evaporate in the event of an alliance with the Islamists.

Al-Mahaba has seen many dissentions over the past two years and its leader, Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, has not returned to Tunisia from his London base since the revolution. Instead, he instructs his followers via Skype and through his UK-based Al-Mustakillah television channel. In 2011, Al-Mahaba’s electoral promises ranged from social welfare programs to religious reform. It was excluded from the negotiations to form the former governing troika, and will likely use this to place the blame squarely on Ennahda for everything bad that has happened to the country over the past three years. Its electoral campaign began when it voted against the Constitution, saying the document “did not include Sharia,” the Islamic law. In saying so, it adopted the traditional discourse of Ennahda and positioned itself as the true “defender of Islam.”

Al-Jabha Al-Sha'abiyya, or the Popular Front, is a coalition of a number of small pan-Arabist and Leftist parties. It has lost two of its leaders since the 2011 elections, and this may be key to its success (or failure) in the next round of voting. Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were assassinated in 2013 and have since become national martyrs. Martyrdom, then, will play an important role in the Front’s slogans. So too will their social demands, which should appeal to disfranchised citizens. The party is likely to continue attacking Ennahda for what its members consider a failure in government and for what they call an "obscurantist" project. In contrast with their 2011 campaign, they will likely be less aggressive towards the ancien régime, due to their membership of the National Salvation Front. Al-Jabha Al-Sha'abiyya will also likely continue to employ its pan-Arabist and anti-imperialist ideology.

In addition, some media tycoons with political parties—notably Slim Riahi of Ettounisiyya TV, Mohamed Ayachi Ajroudi of Al Janoubi TV and Nabil Karoui of Nessma TV—will likely enter the race and lean on either the ancien régime, Ennahda or Al-Jabha Al-Sha'abiyya in the next elections.

At the ballot box

If current polls are to be believed, if elections were held now the Islamist and the ancien régime camps would receive 30 percent of the vote each, while Al-Jabha Al-Sha'abiyya would take 10 percent. Of course, this could all change by the time ballot boxes open, as the strength of Al-Mahaba and the other parties are currently unclear. Indeed, it would not be surprising if a previously unknown party or personality stepped up and won.

While Tunisia’s fellow Arab Spring countries face a potentially frightening 2014, Tunisia is looking ahead to a year of reformed political alliances, televised debates and, eventually, elections. Whatever the outcome of the poll, the country remains the only Arab democracy in the making.


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