Tunisia’s recent legislative elections signal major steps in the country’s process of democratic transition. The path to democracy was laid out by the Troika coalition, Tunis’ transitional leadership, which set about creating and codifying a constitution that enshrined democracy into the laws of the nation. The coalition did this through the promulgation of electoral law, setting the country’s legislative frameworks that would guarantee its democratization. The Troika laid out the only democratic constitution in the Arab world to date, and set forth the mechanisms for a peaceful rotation of power. The holding of elections, and even before that the formation of the Nidaa Tounes Party (Tunisia’s Call), are both the result of the successful governance of the coalition that brought two secular revolutionary parties—the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties— in alliance with the Islamist Ennahda. This coalition prevented a religious-secular polarization at a critical period in Tunisia’s history; something that was not prevented in other Arab states.
Before the transition to the democracy envisioned by the coalition is complete, however, Tunisia must still hold presidential elections and form a new government. While the Troika-led transition period can be seen as having succeeded in laying down the rules for democracy, the challenges of putting democracy into practice and consolidating a break with the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali signifies that there is still work to be done. Just what work remains can be extrapolated by analysis of several factors, from the results of the recent legislative elections, to the nature of the forthcoming government, and the results of the presidential elections given the wider presidential powers mandated by the new constitution.
To begin with, the results of the legislative elections are highly significant. This is particularly the case given that the Tunisian model is the only paradigm for democratic transformation in Arab revolution countries. The fact that the elections themselves went smoothly is also important, since polarization in many other instances has split the revolutionary forces into those for political Islam and secularists. In most scenarios—and Tunis is no exception here—there also exist divisions between revolutionary forces, those of the old regime, and those seeking a counterrevolution. Within this atmosphere, the results of the Tunisian elections have tended to be reduced to the victory of the “secular” Nidaa Tounes and the defeat of the “Islamist” Ennahda. This figuration of the results is, however, a mistaken reading of events. While the election results showed a decline in the number of Ennahda seats, their main feature was the formation of two large political currents that control around 71 percent of the seats in the legislative assembly. As predicted by electoral opinion polls in Tunisia in the nine months before the elections, including the Arab Opinion Index conducted by ACRPS, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda claimed the top number of seats. Either one of these camps might lead a coalition government alongside other smaller parties in parliament, and given their failure to defeat these smaller parties, will be forced to concede key elements of policy as they seek to engage in the political process.
The major losers in the elections were the civil and secular revolutionary forces, whose representation in the legislative assembly shrunk. The low number of votes came principally because would-be constituents cast their ballot for Nidaa Tounes and parties similar to it. The share of votes going to civil revolutionary forces fell from 91 seats after the 2011 elections to 30 seats in 2014. This came about due to numerous factors, including polarization between the supporters of the two main parties, the decision by a portion of voters not to ‘waste’ their votes but casting them for the party they believed would win, and the decline in importance of a legacy of struggle against the previous regime as a factor drawing the support of voters. These factors were exacerbated given the fragmentation of civil revolutionary forces in the years after the revolution.
Since the elections to the constituent assembly, the birth of the Troika, and the legislative elections, the civil revolutionary forces have not been able to form an alliance around an electoral program. On the contrary, civil revolutionary forces became rivals plagued by infighting. The souring of relations between civil revolutionary forces showed them in a light that seemed all too much like the parties affiliated with Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. The civil revolutionary parties thus lost any possible gains when they, along with these other smaller parties, lost their revolutionary brand (without having achieved much in the way of civil or secular gains) when they aligned with Nidaa Tounes. These smaller parties joined on with Nidaa Tounes, whether on the basis of ideological or policy affinity, or out of political pragmatism, centrally to show their hostility to the Islamism of Ennahda and their aversion to the other revolutionary civil forces. The fragmentation that afflicted secular revolutionary forces also hastened their decline. Perhaps the best example of this is the Congress for the Republic, a single party that split into three, in addition to having some of its MPs leave to become independents, or to join other parties. This was not a phenomenon unique to the Congress for the Republic, and the same thing happened to parties like the Social Democratic Path and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties.
When all of these complex factors are taken into account, analysis of Tunis’ elections results can go beyond the Islamist-Secularist split and consider the division between the country’s revolutionary and non-revolutionary forces. Such an analysis would show that the civil revolutionary forces lost more than 60 seats in the elections compared to their 2011 results, a fall due principally to the downturn in support for the three fragmented parties (the Congress, the Forum, and the Path) that were not cushioned by the gains made by the Popular Front. When analysis of the elections is carried out splitting parties based on whether or not they have a history of opposition to the old regime (whether Islamist or secularist), those with a history of struggle can be seen to have dropped from 180 seats in 2011 to 100 seats in the 2014 elections. Yet, those parties that do not have a legacy of opposition to the old regime, or might even represent the regime’s legacy, rose from 20 seats in 2011 to more than 100 in these elections (the seats of Nidaa Tounes and similar parties). Moreover, there is a bloc of 15-17 seats that includes lists that are not associated with either of these two classifications.
If the election results are seen as divided between the control of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda over the majority of the seats in parliament, and this is taken into account along with the fall in the share of the revolutionary parties and rise in parties connected to the old regime (or at the least non-revolutionary parties), then the question posed by the results changes. Instead of a victory of the secularists over the Islamists, or a struggle between the two, the question becomes: why did Nidaa Tounes and the forces seen as an “improved” version of the old regime, win the largest number of seats in parliament? And equally importantly: why did the revolutionary parties fall back?
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This Report was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on November 7, 2014, please click here.