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Tunisians vote for secular government


On 26 October, 69 per cent of the electorate went into the polling booths. © Isabelle Merminod; Tim Baster

‘I hear that most people are disappointed in Ennahda. Most people say that life was less expensive under Ben Ali.’

Mohamed Touiar, a quiet spoken pensioner, is in a school serving as a polling station in Bab Jdid, a working class neighborhood in central Tunis. It is Sunday, 26 October. Tunisians are voting for their parliament and it is only the second time since independence in 1956 that they are voting freely.

217 seats in Tunisia’s legislature are at stake, together with the sliding hopes of millions of Tunisians who thronged the streets shouting ‘Dégage’ (‘Get out!’) in the revolution of January 2011.   

After the polling booth, for the young, it is smartphones out for pictures of an inked finger to show they have voted – in front of the Tunisian flag in the school courtyard, of course. But there are worryingly few young people waiting to vote in some central Tunis voting stations.

Mr. Touiar turned out to be right. Ennahda – the party of political Islam – lost deputies; down from a victorious 89 seats in the post revolution elections of October 2011 to 69 in these elections; Nidaa Tounes, a new secular/liberal party set up in 2012 won the majority, with 85 seats.

A well-heeled businessman, Slim Riahi, won 16 seats for his UPL party. The Popular Front left wing coalition won 15 seats. Afek Tounes, a liberal party, won 8 seats. Small parties make up the other 24 seats.

Within Tunisia, 69 per cent of the electorate went into the polling booths. Once inside, Tunisians had to choose one party list, sometimes from over 50 different political party lists presented by perhaps slightly over-enthusiastic Tunisian democrats. Voting in a young democracy is not for the faint-hearted. 

Why are Tunisians disappointed with Ennahda? The party held onto power with two other small parties from the October 2011 elections until it was forced to hand over to a government of independent technocrats in January 2014.

The critics say that Ennahda’s period in power was marked by the growth of terrorism, the mismanagement of the economy and a failure to agree a new constitution. The assassination of two left wingers in February and July 2013 led to huge demonstrations outside the parliament and across the country. The political crisis was only finally resolved by the resignation of the Ennahda government.

Nidaa Tounes, the secular/liberal party, doesn’t have an outright majority, so a coalition is inevitable. They also have a political burden which may drag them down in the months to come – they have ex-members of the dictator’s party the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) within their ranks.  

The return by ex-RCD members to political life infuriates people who lost loved ones and young revolutionaries who courageously demonstrated for change in 2011.

Ennahda members also have reason to hate senior ex-RCD members, who were part of the state which brutally suppressed Islamists in the 1990s. Although the dictator’s party, the RCD, is banned, ex-members can present themselves in any elections.

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, had already suggested a national unity government even before the elections.

At this very early stage, it appears that some grass roots members of the left wing Popular Front seem open to an alliance.

At a Popular Front rally on October 29, a member said, ‘We are going to have to arrive sooner or later at a solution….I am in agreement [with a national unity government] because everyone had to participate; all the tendencies, right, left and Islamists. It is important to achieve balance.’

Another Popular Front member at the rally said that a unity government would be good ‘for Tunisia, for Africa and for the Mediterranean,’ noting that Tunisia was now a model society in the Arab world.  

But any coalition would be difficult and there is a range of other issues which might fracture any possible coalition: economic difficulties already severely damaging the lives of many Tunisians; increasing acts of terrorism; the failure to control smuggling and arms trafficking at frontiers; the continued impunity of the un-reformed police and the Ministry of the Interior; and the inequality and lack of dignity suffered by many Tunisians.  

Post-revolutionary Tunisia is often painted as a secular/Islamist struggle. But it is more like a struggle between old and new elites with a profound sense of entitlement. The ex-RCD, Nidaa Tounes and the new Ennahda elites argue about who gets what, while ordinary Tunisians – both secular and Islamist – struggle against injustice, inequality and unemployment. 

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