The legislative elections held in Tunisia on October 26th are significant at many levels. The immediate political significance for Tunisia is the clear victory of the Nida Tounes party over the Ennahdha Party; the two parties having dominated both the campaign and the results in what had long been evident would be a two-horse race. The defeat of Ennahdha, which had emerged way out in front of all other parties in the country’s first post-revolution elections three years ago in 2011, has been widely interpreted as a rejection of the party’s religious orientation and an endorsement of the ostensibly avowedly secular vision of Nida Tounes. Such a view, however, fails through to encompass the main reasons for Ennahdha’s defeat and Nida Tounes’s triumph.
Although concern about the Islamist caste of Ennahdha was certainly not absent from the evaluations of many voters, the principal factor explaining the party’s reversal at the ballot box was a widespread popular perception that Ennahdha had failed to deliver meaningful economic improvements during its two years in office as the dominant party in the ruling coalition that came into government following the election of 2011. At the same time, the perceived contrasting competence of Nida Tounes whose leadership comprises a clutch of former ministers, most prominently its leaders, Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister, persuaded many voters that Nida Tounes would be a much safer bet to reform and re-launch Tunisia’s moribund economy. Both parties were aware that the issue of economic competence topped most voters’ list of priorities and campaigned hard on this issue, Ennahdha eschewed mention of religion in its door-to-door campaigning in poorer areas as it sought to shore up support among a section of the population that had strongly backed it in 2011 but who were clearly less convinced this time around. “We want people who can run, manage and change things for the better” was a common refrain from voters.
Nida Tounes’s victory and the leading role it will unavoidably play in Tunisia’s post-election government invites scrutiny as to what exactly the party stands for and in what direction it is likely to lead Tunisia. Essentially a broad front brought together in response to Ennadha’s victory in 2011, Nida Tounes gathered leftists and secularists alarmed by the assumption of power by an Islamist party. Much more substantially, it also drew in large numbers of groups and individuals associated with the former regime of Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali whose presidency had been ended by the popular protests that erupted across the country in December 2010. This rather disparate alliance made for a heterogeneous and often turbulent coalition, many leftists and secularists uneasy with the increasing presence and influence of members of the former regime which many of them had helped overthrow just a couple of years earlier. Several such figures quit the party convinced that the potential re-establishment of the old dictatorial regime was a bigger threat than any putative Islamization of the state by Ennahdha.
In the run-up to the election of 2014, many were convinced that these divisions, contradictions and concerns about Nida Tounes would hamper it electorally leading it to finish behind Ennahdha in the poll. Nida Tounes’s strong showing in the eventual poll demonstrates that it has clearly withstood these pressures. It has done so not just by convincing voters of its likely competence in office but also through the image of its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, who has not only attracted praise for his charismatic and avuncular image but by also posing as a strong and decisive leader in a political landscape lacking such figures. Essebsi has marketed himself vigorously and explicitly as a direct successor to Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who led the country to independence from the French in the 1950s and who ruled in a highly personalised and charismatic manner for over 30 years. Nostalgia for clear leadership has largely overwritten memories of Bourguiba’s authoritarian, if frequently enlightened, rule and has been fully exploited by Nida Tounes and Essebsi. A huge portrait of the former president adorns Essebsi’s office in Tunis and his face featured on Nida Tounes’s posters and campaign literature.
For all of those inspired by Essebsi’s promise of strong leadership, there are many other Tunisians who are alarmed by the ease with which such promises could swiftly slide Tunisia back into authoritarian and even dictatorial rule. Nida Tounes are quick to distinguish the rule of Bourguiba, and thus Essebsi, from that off the despised dictator Ben Ali who followed him, but critics perceive all three leaders to be organically part of the same dictatorial system that ruled Tunisia for over half a century until the uprising of 2010-11. Such fears have not been abated by Nida Tounes’s nominating of their leader to stand for the president of Tunisia, elections for which will take place in two rounds before the end of the year. However, Nida Tounes’s good fortune in enjoying the support that Essebsi’s leadership brings the party is tempered by the knowledge that at 87 years old, he is unlikely to run for a second term or indeed seek out a full term. Whether Nida Tounes without Essebsi would fall apart under the weight of its own tensions or consolidate itself as a regular political party is uncertain as is whether such consolidation would be as a broad alternative to Ennahdha or a reincarnation of the old undemocratic and hegemonic single party that formally ruled Tunisia under Ben Ali and Bourguiba and which banned, repressed and marginalised other parties and critics.
It is this latter scenario that Nida Tounes’s opponents fear most alongside the prospect of a President Essebsi recreating the dictatorial leadership of Ben Ali and Bourguiba, perhaps using fears of regional instability and terrorism as a pretext for a curtailment of political life and freedoms as much as his predecessors did. Although leftists and human rights activists worry about such a scenario, it is among Ennahdha and its supporters that such fears are likely to be most pronounced having been repressed as a movement by the regimes of both Bourguiba and especially Ben Ali, the latter imprisoning, torturing or raping significant numbers of the movement including several of its current leaders.
The significance of the recent election in Tunisia for Europe is several-fold. Whilst many on the northern shore of the Mediterranean are encouraged by the apparent victory of secularists over Islamists at the ballot box, other more prescient observers note the potential dangers of a counter-revolution which could turn Tunisia back into the unpleasant police state it was before 2011. If this were to occur, this would tragically bring to an end what is now effectively the Arab world’s first and only fully democratic state. The institutionalisation of this new democracy is demonstrated by the smooth running of the elections and the peaceful transition of power from one dominant political party to another, with the defeated party accepting the verdict and formally congratulating its victorious rival. Should this democracy become further entrenched through Ennahdha’s continued acceptance of the electoral legitimacy of Nida Tounes and the latter’s respect of Ennahdha’s place as a significant and legitimate opposition party, then Tunisia will provide a powerful example of how Islamism can be incorporated into a democratic political system and how, more importantly, democracy can flourish in the Arab World.