Party politics in Tunisia

The Tunisian parliament in session

With a new constitution in place, Tunisia is preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. In the article below, Karina Piser looks at the state of the country's political parties – and finds them lacking in credible political platforms.

The article was first published by Muftah, a website which aims to cover issues and views that are under-represented in mainstream media.

Pushing for pluralism in Tunisia

After weeks of deadlock over a new electoral law and continued disagreement over the electoral calendar, Tunisia’s political class is gearing up for legislative and presidential elections that will be held this October and November, respectively. During the constitution-drafting process over the last two years, ideological tension stifled consensus. And while the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) approved a much-lauded constitution this past January, the transition’s volatile three years have left Tunisia with a fragmented political blueprint.

However, as politicians prepare for the upcoming electoral contest, partisanship in Tunisia hardly seems to have changed since first emerging after the fall of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011. Small parties from across the ideological spectrum remain unable to assert themselves or unite within a polarised political landscape dominated by the same parties that took the reins after Ben Ali’s ouster.

Political conflict in post-revolution Tunisia

The number of political parties in Tunisia skyrocketed in the days following Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011. New alliances and shifts in partisan affiliation made the transition’s first three years a dynamic period of political self-discovery. Paradoxically, these diverse groups have yet to generate genuine or meaningful political debate or encourage multiparty politics; Tunisia is still far from achieving the pluralism necessary to herald a democratic era.

When the Islamist Ennahda party returned to the political scene in 2011, Tunisia’s “progressive” parties defined themselves in opposition to its religious framework and failed to form unique platforms to energize voters. This early mistake, which diluted their presence in the assembly, has shaped the balance of power that has reigned ever since. Tunisia’s political class is divided between Ennahda and its opponents, perpetuating a religious-secular divide that does not reflect the reality of popular demands or national interests.

As the 2014 elections approach, this power dynamic remains mostly unchanged. Since 2011, former Bourguiba-era Minister Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes (“Call for Tunisia”) party, which launched in 2012, has emerged as a potential secular challenger to Ennahda’s dominance. But some contend that the party, which unites a disconnected amalgam of leftists and members of the old guard, lacks its own platform and has instead constituted itself purely in opposition to Ennahda’s allegedly Islamic agenda, replicating the strategic mishaps that facilitated the Islamists’ electoral success in 2011. “The party is only adversarial,” Sihem Bensedrine, a human rights activist and president of the newly formed Truth and Dignity Commission, explained during an interview in early June. “They make strategic errors, focusing on their fear of Islamism and ignoring their own objectives.”

The two parties have butted heads since Nidaa Tounes’ creation. In early October 2012, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi publicly described Nidaa Tounes as “more dangerous than Salafists and harder to fight,” arguing that the party’s links to the former regime bestowed it with national networks that would push Tunisia back into authoritarian rule. Later that month, Lotfi Nagdh, Nidaa Tounes member and president of the Regional Farmers Union in Tataouine, was murdered. At a press conference, Essebsi immediately called the murder “planned … by the Ennahda and the [Congress for the Republic’s] representatives in Tataouine, and approved by their central offices,” referring to the CPR, another member of the governing coalition. Similar accusations continued to fly throughout 2013 amidst mounting political violence.

Persistent party fragmentation

But tensions seem to have eased recently. In March, Essebsi declared his party’s willingness to cooperate with Ennahda, though some members—particularly those weary of melding religion and politics—continued to have reservations. During interviews I conducted earlier this month during a European Council on Foreign Relations research mission to Tunis, Salma Mabrouk, member of the leftist Al-Massar party, argued that while some members of Nidaa Tounes might be willing to form an eventual alliance with Ennahda, “the party continues to present itself as anti-Ennahda.” Chawki Gaddes, jurist and secretary general of the Tunisian Association of Constitutional Law, cast doubt on whether Nidaa could sufficiently overcome its “competing internal camps” in order to truly engage in coalition politics, “which will be necessary to advance” in solidifying a democratic partisan landscape. “But it’s not happening,” he added, “nobody wants to get along, and the scene remains fragmented.”

Even if Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes were to join hands, however, some argue that an alliance between the country’s two major political forces is not necessarily the type of coalition that would strengthen democratic consolidation. “Their alliance would create a monopoly, destroying the potential for plurality,” Bensedrine warned. “We need a strong democratic state that encourages partisan debate, not power concentrated in two big parties.” To resolve problems of political fragmentation, unity should be encouraged among the country’s smaller (and far less influential) parties or between larger and smaller parties, which have struggled to assert themselves over the last three years.

Writing for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel in February, I co nsidered whether Tunisia’s next elections would obligate voters to choose between either Ennahda or the other political parties, limited by the contrived religious-secular polarity that has wracked transitional politics since their déebut. Salma Mabrouk confirmed my fears, describing a polarized political sphere that enables powerful parties to monopolize power. “Ennahda managed to dominate NCA decision-making because the assembly was so dispersed,” she explained. “I had hoped that this time around, smaller parties would coalesce as a counter-balance. But instead, they keep diversifying, trying to differentiate themselves from one another without searching for common ground.” Even though several center-left parties agreed to create a common platform in early June, few efforts have taken off.

Mabrouk described Al-Massar’s futile attempts to create a coalition, but lamented Nidaa Tounes’ lack of political will to work with parties like hers. “We have common points, but when they see their popularity in the polls, they don’t have any interest in cooperating.” Gaddes echoed this sentiment: “From Nidaa’s perspective, a party like Al-Massar won’t bring them anything. The conditions just aren’t there for coalitional politics, so the scene remains balkanised.”

Gaddes attributes this fragmentation to the new electoral law: “The NCA systematically ignored civil society’s recommendations,” notably to establish an electoral threshold that would ultimately force small parties to create coalitions. “Imposing a threshold is absolutely essential in parliamentary elections,” he stressed. Gaddes showed concern that the new electoral law’s relative continuity with the 2011 text, which regulated the NCA elections, will reinforce the dispersed political landscape that leaves parties like Al-Massar and others without a voice. “A mosaic landscape was okay for writing a constitution, but could be seriously destabilising for governing the country.”

Which way forward?

Tunisia’s transition to democracy hinges upon genuine plurality, necessitating a shift away from the concentrated power that has characterised the three years since Ben Ali’s fall. Still, small parties are in the process of replicating the strategy that lead to their demise in the 2011 elections, reacting to Ennahda’s ideology rather than behaving pragmatically and adapting to the rules of the democratic game. As the elections approach, parties should recognise the strategic benefit of coalition building to avoid one-party dominance; purely adversarial posturing could facilitate Ennahda’s de facto monopoly.

Tunisia’s current political landscape bears striking resemblance to 2011. At the same time, three years of volatile transitional politics have weighed on the public’s confidence, as Tunisians become increasingly impatient with lack of growth, persistent unemployment and unreformed institutions. Against this backdrop, energising voters this autumn will be difficult. Tunisian parties must offer credible platforms grounded in concrete measures to improve the economy, insulate the country’s porous borders from Libya’s increasingly precarious security climate and additional security threats, and remind citizens their efforts in toppling the former regime were not in vein. This pragmatic embrace is not impossible, but will require all Tunisia’s political players to search for common ground.
Posted on Saturday, 19 July 2014