Tunisia 2011

Constituent assembly elections were held in Tunisia on October 23, 2011. These elections elected the 217-seat Constituent Assembly, which will draft a new constitution for Tunisia and elect a new interim President and Prime Minister following the overthrow of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the Tunisian Revolution back in early January.

Ben Ali, the authoritarian despot who had ruled Tunisia since 1987 was quickly ousted following only a month’s worth of violent protests against the regime. Ben Ali’s overthrow was the first domino to fall in the string of Arab revolutions since this winter which has since expanded across North Africa and the Middle East and resulted in the ouster of at least two other longtime authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Libya. Since independence from France in 1956, Tunisia had seen only two Presidents: the “father of the nation”, Habib Bourguiba who had laid the roots of the modern secular and pro-western Tunisian state; and Ben Ali, Bourguiba’s last Prime Minister who overthrew the old man in 1987 when the country was on the verge of economic collapse. Whatever hopes there were of liberalization as Ben Ali took power were dashed by 1989, when Ben Ali reverted to the authoritarianism and political oppression of his predecessor. He won reelections countless times with huge margins, taking over 90% of the vote in nicely-staged fake elections complete with play-nice ‘legal opposition’ parties. Economic growth was not enough to keep a lid on popular discontent as unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remained a huge issue. It all boiled over in December 2010, when the revolution which cost Ben Ali his presidency was set in motion with the self-immolation of a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid. Ben Ali was ousted on January 14. On February 27, the interim government led by Ben Ali’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, was forced out following protests and replaced by Beji Caid Essebi, a 84-year old stalwart of the old regime who is nonetheless a popular non-partisan senior figure. Following the revolution, the dominant party of the old regime – the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) was banned and dissolved.

The new Constituent Assembly will have 217 members, of which 199 represent Tunisia and 18 represent Tunisians abroad. In Tunisia, each governorate serves as a constituency with the larger governorates of Nabeul, Sfax and Tunis further divided into two districts. Each governorate/district elects between 4 and 10 members through largest remainder closed list PR which favours the dispersion of seats between many parties (and thus small parties). The 18 ‘diaspora’ seats were divided as follows: 5 seats for France-north, 3 seats for France-south, 3 seats for Italy, 1 seat for Germany, 2 seats for the Americas and the rest of Europe and 2 seats for Arab countries and the rest of the world.

11,686 candidates on a total of 1,517 lists ran for this first free election in Tunisian history. With the RCD gone, the political spectrum was basically brand new. The big question in Tunisia and indeed in the other Arab states which overthrew longtime authoritarian regimes is who will take over? In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the regimes which were overthrown were, at varying extents, secular and opposed to political Islam. Thus, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, the largest opposition force under the old regimes were the Islamists (or Islamics, depending on one’s political view of such hot-button issues).

The main opposition in Tunisia under Ben Ali was the illegal and underground Ennahda (Renaissance) movement, founded in 1981 as the MTI and led since its foundation by Rached Ghannouchi. The party participated in the “freest” of the old regime elections in 1989 as an independent slate and came a distant second behind the RCD, and its success led to its rapid banning and Ghannouchi’s exile in London. The party has no old institutional base inside Tunisia, but few parties do. Instead, it has a wide network of sympathizers and a large reservoir of sympathy and legitimacy as the best organized and most respected opposition force in Tunisia. The big question surrounding Ennahda is its commitment to democracy and reform. Critics warn that its moderate rhetoric hides a more extremist faction which is ready to turn Tunisia, one the Arab world’s more liberal state with remarkably progressive social legislation (in matters such as gender equality, notably), into a theocratic backwater or at least a conservative authoritarian state. Ennahda claims that is supports democracy, political pluralism, women’s rights, civil liberties and economic liberalism. It has linked itself politically with Turkey’s governing party, the Islamic-rooted AKP. Ennahda says it is an ‘Islamic party’ but not an ‘Islamist party’.

The secular (left) opposition in Tunisia is far less organized and far more divided. Prior to the elections, the three largest parties were thought to be the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties or FDTL) and the Congress for the Republic (CPR). The PDP was legal under the old regime but was one of the most critical parties in the fake opposition, and thus actually harassed by the government and obviously kept out of the plaything legislature by the RCD. The party was founded in 1983 by Ahmed Nejib Chebbi though now led by Maya Jribi. Originally rather left-wing, the party has moved towards the centre and was allegedly backed by part of the business community. Chebbi has served in the interim government since January. Ettakatol was founded in 1994 but legalized only in 2002. It is led by Mustapha Ben Jaafar and is the closest thing to a social democratic party – it is an observer member of SI (of which the RCD was a member until SI kicked it out in embarrassment in January). The party is progressive on moral and gender equality issues. Ben Jaafar briefly served in the interim government until he quit, saying it was too dominated by old RCD stalwarts. Finally there is the Congress for the Republic (CPR), which was banned throughout the old regime’s rule and led from exile in Paris by Moncef Marzouki, a well-known human rights activist. The CPR, which is the most radical of the three main secular parties in its dealing with old RCD interests, is described as left-leaning, nationalist and concerned primarily about civil liberties.

On the sidelines of the secular opposition stood the Democratic Modernist Pole (PDM), a coalition led by the Ettajdid movement – the descendant of the old Communist Party (PCT). Ettajdid’s attempt to unite the secular movement under its wing failed, perhaps because Ettajdid – which was legal under the old regime – is much more concerned about defending Tunisia’s secular state than by destroying the vestiges of the RCD. It took the most radical stance against Ennahda but its attempts to brand the election as a straight-cut choice between evil theocrats and them failed.

There are also a handful of other centre-right parties with some sort of links to the RCD. First there were the “RCD parties”, which included El Watan led by a former interior minister of the regime and L’Initiative (Al Moubadara) led by former foreign minister Kamel Morjane. Afek Tounes, alleged by the CPR of having links with the RCD, was the top voice of neoliberalism and of the country’s wealthiest elites. Similarly right-wing was the Free Patriotic Union (UPL), a neoliberal party led by young business magnate Slim Riahi who made a fortune in Libya in energy and property development. The UPL was well funded and led some to fear Riahi was trying to become a Tunisian Berlusconi.

Finally, and most political isolated, was the far-left Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT), an Hoxhaist party led by Hamma Hammami, jailed several times by the old regime. But these were by no means the only party, as you’ll find out. There were other RCD parties, other right-wing secular parties, some socialist parties, some Arab socialist parties, some nationalist parties… an all you can eat buffet of parties in sum.

Turnout of registered voters was 52% range. A lot had feared low turnout, as Tunisians lost track of politics with over 100 lists running in their district or by disillusion with politics in the wake of the slow pace of reforms following the revolution. Turnout of the VAP, however, was apparently much lower because of low rates of voter registration. I have updated this page with final results.

Ennahda 37.04% winning 89 seats
CPR 8.71% winning 29 seats
Popular Petition (Al Aridha Chaabia) 6.74% winning 26 seats
Ettakatol 7.03% winning 20 seats
PDP 3.94% winning 16 seats
L’Initiative 3.19% winning 5 seats
PDM 2.79% winning 5 seats
Afek Tounes 1.89% winning 4 seats
PCOT 1.57% winning 3 seats
People’s Movement 0.75% winning 2 seats
MDS 0.56% winning 2 seats
UPL 1.26% winning 1 seat
MDP 0.83% winning 1 seat
Others and indies 3.35% winning 14 seats

Ennahda is the clear winner of these elections. Its victory was not a surprise, but its strength was seriously underestimated – unsurprisingly – by most pollsters. The party won some 41% of the seats and roughly 37-40% of the popular vote, which is considerably more than what was originally predicted. It is not an absolute majority, but the party is in the driver’s seat in the new Constituent Assembly. Regardless of whatever it says, it’s pretty certain that the new constitution will bear Ennahda’s mark in some way or another. However, unlike the FIS in Algeria in 1992 which won the legislative elections with a huge absolute majority (66%) and then proceeded to alter the constitution on its own terms – provoking the military’s response – Ennahda is not in such a position and this is often invoked to allay fears that Ennahda will be too dominant in the new assembly. Furthermore, Ennahda understands that it is not in its interests to take its landslide to its head and act independently and aloofly of others. Doing so would risk compromising Tunisia’s democratic transition and alienating large swathes of the society and military. It is not in its interests to do anything really ‘important’ for lack of a better term until it knows that it is in a position to win a confrontation with the secular forces outright. For the time being, Ennahda will do everything in its power to reassure Tunisians and foreigners as to its objectives. It has already said countless times that it is supports gender equality (that is, Tunisia’s current laws on the matter which are pretty progressive), liberal democracy and pluralism, the alliance with the west. It has said that it would not ban alcohol, only seek to discourage drinking through taxation, and countless other reassurances of its moderation and commitment to democracy.

The reasons for Ennahda’s success are plenty. Even if Tunisia is one the Arab world’s most secularized countries, it remains a Muslim country and voters feel some sense of affiliation with a moderate Islamic party. Second, the party emerged from the revolution with a lot of legitimacy as the most well-known longtime opponent of Ben Ali’s regime even if its role in the actual revolution was probably pretty limited overall. Third, the party was extremely well funded and could manage to pay for a big campaign. In addition, the party had a surprisingly strong and vibrant grassroots base on the ground which made it one of the best organized parties in these elections, in addition to being one of the best funded parties. Ideologically, the party’s simple message also paid off in big ways. Firstly, Ennahda promises more social spending and welfare measures, something which has made it popular in low-income rural and urban areas throughout Tunisia. But most important in the party’s success, in my eyes, is the party’s positioning as a conservative force of stability. Even if the revolution remains popular with the bulk of voters, the revolutionary euphoria of January has since died down and voters have undeniably woken up in a new country where they feel worried about their future and disoriented in a totally new political system where the police state and single-party authoritarianism of the RCD regime were pretty much eliminated overnight. Ennahda reassured voters who felt worried and disoriented with its conservative message: praising the revolution but saying that it was time to get back to work. Ennahda was the most radical force in opposition to the old regime, but today the party is a force for conservatism, stability and order. Ennahda as a reassuring force for stability and order in a complex new world really struck a chord with voters who feel a little disoriented and rather worried. This is quite similar to the first free elections of the democratic transitions in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil or Chile where the forces of the old order were shunned while voters embraced moderates who promised stability and rejected the more radical and revolutionary forces which wanted a rapid break with the old order. Just like how Egyptian voters earlier this year voted heavily in favour of a watered-down constitutional reform which was opposed by the more radical revolutionaries.

The real shock of this election came from Al Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition). The party had not figured in any poll, it had no Wikipedia page on it, nothing had been written about in in the international media and even few Tunisians knew it. So it really came out of absolutely nowhere and did so well. If it had won 5 or so seats, then few would have noticed it as a lot of parties which won a few seats are pretty much unknown to anybody. But this is a party which officially won 26 seats. Al Aridha Chaabia is a populist personalist party led by Mohamed Hechmi Haamdi, a Tunisian businessman who has lived in London since the 90s where he runs the satellite TV station Al-Mustakilla. Hechmi Haamdi is originally from Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution and a very poor small town in the Tunisian interior, something which hasn’t prevented him from amassing stacks of money through his TV station which is pretty popular in Tunisia and in Sidi Bouzid. Politically, Hechmi Haamdi has been all over the place. He was originally a member of the MTI – Ennahda’s predecessor – before leaving the party in 1992 to move closer to Ben Ali’s regime – before again breaking with Ben Ali in 2001 and Al-Mustakilla became a voice for the opposition. Shortly thereafter, he once again begun singing Ben Ali and Leïla Trabelsi’s praises. As a result, he is considered to be close to the Islamists but on very bad terms with Ennahda’s leadership, while at the same time he is much criticized as an ally of Ben Ali and the RCD regime – a charge he of course denies. Al Aridha Chaabia was suspected of being bankrolled by the old RCD interests. Having run his campaign from London and through his TV station, Hechmi Haamdi’s lists have been accused of illegal financing and were disqualified in five districts and its seats won there redistributed with a new quota. At first, it won 19 seats but then the invalidated lists were ‘uninvalidated’ and set the party’s results at 26. At first, Hechmi Haamdi said that Al Aridha’s remaining MPs would withdraw from the Assembly in protest but he has since reversed that decision after those remaining MPs resisted.

It was Al Aridha’s populism which explained its success. The party did well in the poor interior regions and probably “took votes” which would have otherwise probably have gone to Ennahda. In Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of both Hechmi Haamdi and the revolution, Al Aridha won in a landslide but its list there was disqualified. But while its vote in large part can be explained as a protest vote from the interior against the coastal elites, the party also did well in some coastal regions. Overall it is the populism of Hechmi Haamdi, whose lists of wild promises included universal health care, heavy social spending, unemployment benefits of 200 dinars and a bridge to Italy(!), which won his lists the vote they got.

In the secular coalition, the CPR led by exiled opposition leader Moncef Marzouki emerged – somewhat surprisingly – as the main opposition force to Ennahda. The CPR, which was the only party of the four main secular left parties to have been illegal under the regime, was also pretty moderate and this in part explains its success. It built a bridge between Arab nationalism, civil liberties and a less confrontational attitude towards Ennahda. In contrast, the clear losers of the secular coalition – the PDP and the Ettajdid-led PDM – had taken a very confrontational attitude towards Ennahda and both failed in their attempts to coalesce what there was of a secular left anti-Ennahda vote around them. The PDP was the biggest loser (given that the PDM was never expected to do very well), given that the party had hoped to be the second largest party but ended up in a distant fifth with only 17 members. Its viscerally anti-Ennahda attitude explains part of it, but a lot seems to come from the party’s lack of revolutionary enthusiasm and its penchant for compromise with the old RCD forces. Nejib Chebbi’s participation in the first post-Ben Ali interim government was judged to be a “dark day” for the PDP, and even before that the PDP had on January 13 been the only opposition party to accept Ben Ali’s proposal to form a coalition government. Voters certainly rejected the most radical of the revolutionary forces and opted for conservative voices of stability, but they also strongly rejected those who were too closely linked to the old order. Indeed, of the “pure RCD parties”, L’Initiative won only five seats – and its vote was heavily concentrated (4/5 seats) in Sousse and Monastir, the old bastions of the RCD and the birthplaces of Ben Ali and Bourguiba respectively.

Ennahda did best in the interior regions, but there is no clear-cut polarization between a liberal coast and a conservative Islamic interior. Al Aridha’s strong showings in the interior explain part of this, but overall Ennahda can pride itself on having a very homogeneously divided vote. There is also little sign of a strong rural vs. urban divide. Ennahda did just as well in some urban areas – like Tunis I – as it did in some rural areas. In Tunis, the secular forces did best in Tunis II – which includes some of the city’s more affluent and posh suburbs and neighborhoods while Tunis I includes the poorer areas of the old town.

As I said, Ennahda is played it very well so far. It is reasserting its moderation and commitment to democracy and doing its best to please everybody. As such, Ennahda is trying to form a coalition government with the CPR and Ettakatol. This government would have the strength of bringing together Ennahda and the two biggest secular forces. But Ennahda does not want to work with Al Aridha, partly because the two hate each other and because Ennahda certainly has no interest in legitimizing Al Aridha as a political force. Given Al Aridha’s voters, Ennahda is instead going to try to explain why they voted for Al Aridha and not for them.

Ennahda is proposing the party’s secretary-general, the moderate Hamadi Jebali for the office of Prime Minister rather than Ghannouchi, the party’s boss. At the same time, it is ready to give the presidency to the other parties. It has mentioned the name of Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jafaar, CPR leader Moncef Marzouki and current interim PM Beji Caid Essebsi for the presidency. Of course, Ennahda envisions the presidency as a ceremonial office in a parliamentary republic…


Posted on October 29, 2011, in Tunisia. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for writing this thorough analysis. The summaries my local papers provide usually leave me dissatisfied, since they seem to miss what it all might mean, and instead just providing the obligated numbers, making all those elections, or political events in other parts of the world seem like one big mess.

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