On October 26 2014, 3.2 million Tunisians headed to the polls to choose a new parliament under the new constitution adopted in January 2014. 69% of eligible voters turned out for what was the second democratic election since the ousting of president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, defying the expectations raised by western skeptic polls that predicted a low turnout. Four parties emerged as the major winners of these elections, and all parties and candidates accepted the results—proof that Tunisia is maturing as a democracy.
In the previous election in 2011, the Ennahda party, running on a platform that stressed Islamic identity and their dissident past, came in first, gaining 43% of the 217-seat interim legislature, a majority in the assembly and leadership of the government until the end of 2013. Ennahda relinquished power to a non-partisan in 2014, after a troubled year and two political assassinations. The party had also failed to alleviate the dire social and economic situation in the country, after having made grandiose promises.
Unemployment in Tunisia remains stubbornly high at 16%, and averages 40% among youth. There’s been a “security vacuum” in the country for more than two years. More than 30 national guards have perished in skirmishes along the Algerian border. A recent standoff in a suburb of Tunis, the capital city, resulted in seven deaths, including five women and a baby. Tunisians voted for a change in this and other aspects of the current status quo.
On Wednesday, official results from Tunisia's legislative elections confirmed the expected win for the secular Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia), a coalition party only two years old headed by Beji Caed Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran who served under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and later under Ben Ali. Disillusioned voters pushed three other major parties— Ettakatl, Al Jomhouri and Congress for the Republic—out of parliament. These three parties, two of which served in previous Ennahda-led governments, held on to only 4 of the 63 seats they won in 2011. The parties have pledged to respect the elections results and are now contesting the presidential elections, set for November 23.
In a international election observers press conference, Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, which monitored the elections in Tunisia, said that the “Tunisian elections showed dialogue and an inclusive approach to politics, reflecting the spirit of the Tunisian people.”
Nidaa Tounes brings together former regime officials and new politicians committed to curbing the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. The party's rallying slogan during the campaign was, “Not voting for Nidaa is a vote for Ennahda.” They ended up splitting the vote: together, Nidaa Tounes’ 85 seats and Ennahda’s 69 amount to 70% of the voting power in the new legislature.
Yet, labeling the political contentions in Tunisia as secular vs. Islamist is a limited interpretation of the status quo, or even the status quo ante. Three new political parties have emerged in the wake of the recent elections, representing the radical left, center and liberal right-wing. They compete on economic programs and strategies to secure development and wealth for the country’s population. Islamists still have a say in the politics of the country, and will for at least five more years, but perhaps Tunisians didn’t cast their votes in order to isolate one political power or another. It’s possible they were more focused on exercising their right to change governments peacefully through elections.
The elections in Tunisia were messy (ar). The committee in charge of organizing the elections and several observer groups recorded violations by several political parties, including Nidaa Tounes, who lost a seat in Kasserine. However, these elections are not the end goal per se, only mechanisms to reinstate and reinforce plurality. The challenge that remains in Tunisia is to work within the pluralistic democratic framework now in place, with the new constitution as the safeguard of rights and liberties during the next five years of governance.
Despite fears that Nidaa Tounes, with their relative majority, might install a new form of oligarchic regime, diverse political actors have vowed to continue the work of their parties. The leader and president of center-left Ettakatol, Mustafa Ben Jaafer, which retained only one seat of the 20 they won in 2011, thinks Tunisians “punished” centrist parties like his, and urged the centrist parties to form a new coalition.
“Social-democratic forces stayed scattered and did not take the responsibility to unite,” Ben Jaafer said in a press conference after the results of the elections were announced. Because of polarization, in order for pluralism to take root in Tunisia, new alternatives must emerge to maintain the balance that has saved Tunisia from the conflicts and wars the rest of the region has experienced.
“An election is not democracy in and of itself,” stressed IRI representative Scott Mastic at the same press conference where Ben Jaafer spoke. And it is true is that the situation in the country is still uncertain. An exceptionally large number of candidates—27—will contest the presidential elections at the end of this month, and some Tunisians fear a consolidation of power if Beji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa’s pretender to presidency, wins the majority of votes. Other voters have concerns over new coalitions that might divide the country into a new set of secularists and Islamists—that long-standing tension many political parties are only too willing to put aside in favor of a national unity government.
Ahmed Medien was a local observer in Tunisia's recent elections. Follow him on twitter at @ahmedmedien.