Tunisia on the road to gridlock?

Next Sunday, October 23, will deliver the first tangible fruits of the uprising that toppled President Ben Ali in Tunisia when voters elect a 218-member National Constituent Assembly.

The assembly will not be a parliament as such: its main task is to draft a new constitution and prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections which will come later. 

The election itself, therefore, is unlikely to be definitive. Barring a surprise result in which one party gains overall control, we can expect several months of haggling to ensue over such matters as the role of religion in public life and the eventual system of government, including the level of decentralisation. Obviously, though, the parties with the largest numbers of seats will be in the best position to determine the character of the new system – so the election is still important.

The assembly is supposed to last for one year. Beyond the task of preparing a constitution its role is not entirely clear, though it is expected to appoint a new government and act temporarily as the country's sovereign body.

The Project on Middle East Democracy has produced a usefulguide to the election which describes the contesting parties and highlights some potential problems. The strongest contender appears to be the moderately Islamist (and previously banned) al-Nahda party. Opinion polls have put its support somewhere between 20% and 30%, though it's difficult to judge how reliable these polls are.

Ranged against al-Nahda are a fragmented collection of mainly left and centre-left parties which are probably less well organised in terms of getting their supporters to the polling stations.

The run-up to polling day has brought some disturbances attributed to salafists which began after Nessma TV showed the film, Persepolis, on October 7 – the objection being that it included a depiction of God.

Much has been made of Tunisia's religion-versus-secularism debate (Associated PressFinancial TimesWashington Post, etc, etc). This is a real issue but fears of Tunisia swiftly turning into a theocracy are much exaggerated.

Al-Nahda may well profit from voters' indecision. Writing for the Qantara website, Sarah Mersch quotes a 24-year-old mathematics student as saying:

"If I can't decide, I guess I'll vote for al-Nahdha ... at least they're all honest: they were all in prison until the revolution. The other parties are full of former members of the RCD [ex-president Ben Ali's party]."

So it could turn out to be a case of people voting for al-Nahda to show their rejection of what has gone before, rather than out of enthusiasm for its religious outlook. That would be not unlike what happened in Gaza when Hamas won the election in 2005.

Al-Nahda has been at great pains not to frighten wavering voters. The party's head, Rached Ghannouchi, has condemned the violence over the showing of Persepolis while also asserting "the right of the Tunisian people to denounce this attack on their religion." So far, he is able to sit on the fence but if and when his party becomes a player in government fence-sitting won't be enough: they will have to decide whether or not to ban films like Persepolis.

This is the dilemma that all Islamist parties face once they engage in democratic politics. They can no longer snipe from the sidelines and instead have to make practical decisions about policies. To retain electoral popularity they may need to compromise on their religious principles.

Religion aside, the other big issue for Tunisia is how to tackle the economic problems that were a major factor in Ben Ali's downfall. As The Moor Next Door points out, very little is known at present about what any of the parties would actually do to solve them. Decisive action on the economy is urgently needed but unlikely to be forthcoming in the immediate future as Tunisia goes through its process of political restructuring. The Project on Middle East Democracy's report sounds this warning note:

"Despite confusion over the electoral process and dissatisfaction with political parties, Tunisians have considerable expectations for the period following the elections. Since Ben Ali’s ouster, people have been frustrated with the slow pace of reform, but in recent weeks they have tempered their demands with the understanding that elections must take place before their grievances can be genuinely addressed. 

"Yet the legitimacy that comes with being an elected body also means that people will demand more from the National Constituent Assembly. Unfortunately, as the political landscape becomes increasingly polarized, there is a risk that the coming period will be marked by gridlock. The electoral system is designed to ensure that the makeup of the assembly reflect as accurately as possible Tunisia’s varying interests. 

"While it is certainly positive that the body tasked with shaping the future identity of the country has broad representation, the vast number of parties with disparate priorities could make it difficult to reach agreement on key issues. 

"Yet with a reeling economy and a tenuous security situation, it is crucial that political parties work together to tackle Tunisia’s daunting challenges. Failure to do so could derail the country’s democratic transition. These elections, therefore, are about more than selecting a constituent assembly, they will determine the prospects for genuine democracy taking hold in Tunisia."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 October 2011.