Tunisia’s October 26, 2014 parliamentary elections sent tremors through the country’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda. The results were a clear victory for the party’s main opponent, the secular party Nidaa Tounes. This blow to Ennahda’s power was quickly followed by presidential elections held on November 23, with Nidaa Tounes’s founder Beji Cassid Essebsi widely expected to win the run off vote at the end of December.
Back in 2011, Ennahda won 89 out of 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly, during the country’s first free and fair elections. The party has since weathered two political assassinations and numerous large-scale anti-government protests to which it has responded by offering significant concessions. Despite dominating the government since November 2011, in January 2014 Ennahda ceded a majority of its power to a technocratic government.
Against this backdrop, much attention has focused on the implications of the recent elections for Ennahda, specifically, and for Tunisia’s political Islamists, more generally. Such a focus is clearly justifiable, as the aftershocks of these events will certainly reverberate long into the future for Ennahda and its followers.
But, in assessing the election’s outcomes, there has been an inclination within Western – and particularly French – media to view Nidaa Tounes’s victory exclusively through the lens of a secular-religious binary. But relying on this binary clouds the political reality behind these events and represents a myopic interpretation of voter attitudes. Instead of reflecting the politics of religious ideology, Ennahda’s loss to Nidaa Tounes reveals popular disappointment with the party’s failures in delivering accountability and good governance to the country.
A More Nuanced Story
With approval ratings dipping for many politicians and countrywide support for democracy on the decline, a vast majority of Tunisians chose to abstain from the parliamentary vote. In a country with a population of approximately 10 million, around 7 million Tunisians did not vote either because they could not or did not want to. While the significance of this mass electoral exodus is unclear, it certainly suggests that something other than secular versus religious ideology is at play.
Further undermining the secular-religious binary is the fact that the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol – the two secular parties that entered into a coalition government with Ennahda to form Tunisia’s previous “troika” government – fared even worse than Ennahda in the parliamentary elections. Winning 29 seats in 2011, the CPR dropped down to only 4 seats after the recent electoral round, while Ettakatol lost all its seats (Ettakatol initially received 1 seat, but this was later revoked).
The troika’s failures to deliver on its promises to mitigate Tunisia’s socioeconomic crisis largely explains this shift. Inflation has skyrocketed, and unemployment has exceeded 30 percent among youth. Multiple political assassinations and protracted skirmishes along the Algerian border have further contributed to perceptions of instability in Tunisia.
According to a recent Pew Research poll, Ennahda’s popularity has plummeted over 30 percentage points during the past two years, from 65% in 2012 to 31% in 2014, In the same research poll, 88% of respondents described the country’s economic situation as bad, and roughly half of Tunisians (51%) said the recent years of post-revolutionary instability had left the country worse off than it was under President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Only 35% said Tunisia was better off because of the Ennahda government and the technocratic administration that followed.
The Rise of Nidaa Tounes
In lieu of another five years of Ennahda-dominated government, Tunisians chose a new political leadership. Founded in July 2012 by Essebsi – an 87-year-old veteran who served under former Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali – Nidaa Tounes includes a number of former regime officials together with liberal political activists.
Media depictions notwithstanding, Nidaa Tounes is not a secular panacea for all the country’s ills. The party largely lacks a unifying platform and discourse. As a result, ideological and structural fissures abound within the organization. As Tunisia experts Monica Marks and Omar Belhaj Salah explain in a piece for Sada, “Nidaa Tounes has patched together a motley crew of leftists, liberal progressives, Destourians, and former RCD [Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, the party of former President Ben Ali] partisans who oppose Ennahda’s rule. Even groups with nominally conflicting agendas— such as many members of the country’s principal labor union, UGTT, and the national employers’ union, UTICA—tend to support Nidaa Tounes.”
As noted by Marks and Salah, a number of Nidaa Tounes members are associated with the now-defunct RCD party. Such members include Essebsi, as well as prominent businessman Faouzi Loumi and Mohamed Ghariani, RCD’s last secretary general. Parallels and links to the former regime have caused many Tunisians to fear Nidaa Tounes may represent a return to the heavy-handedness of the country’s former dictators. Rather than being linked to the corrupt practices of the Ben Ali regime, however, Nidaa Tounes has sought to associate itself with the “modernist social project” of former President Bourguiba.
Much of Nidaa Tounes’ constituency hails from Tunisia’s north, while a majority of Ennahda’s supporters come from the south. The fact that voting patterns on election day also this north-south divide is not a new phenomenon. Politicians from the country’s former regimes have historically hailed from the sahel (Tunisia’s northern and coastal region) and received support from their compatriots in the north. That this trend has continued reveals how geographic and historical elements had a more concrete effect in the parliamentary elections than ideological disputes. In fact, if observers were to highlight any “binary” related to the elections, this geographical divide would be the one to choose.
Ennahda & Ideology
Ennahda is neither the monolithic nor uncompromising Islamist party that many in the West seem to believe. The “religious” end of the media narrative is, in other words, not just concerned with religion. In fact, during the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution, Ennahda made a number of compromises on controversial clauses related to religion. The group backed down on issues such as referencing sharia, criminalizing blasphemy, and pushing gender “complementarity” in this important founding document.
Despite these concessions, Nidaa Tounes officials have so far indicated a reluctance to enter into a coalition with Ennahda. If Nidaa Tounes is able to secure 109 out of 217 parliamentary seats by collaborating with smaller parties, Ennahda will be marginalized. Ennahda’s acceptance of these circumstances reflects its own pragmatism, and the secondary place ideology has in its day to day activities.
“Yes to bread and water, no to Ben Ali”
Many Tunisians would argue that soci0-economic issues have remained important since the start of Tunisia’s transitional period. A prominent slogan chanted during Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution, “khubz wa maa’, Ben Ali laa” (“Yes to bread and water, no to Ben Ali”) reflects these concerns.
According to some Tunisians, elites have used ideology and religion to “hijack” the revolution. The 2014 parliamentary elections have demonstrated, however, that Tunisians continue to be moved by social and economic issues above all else. After Tunisia’s decades’ long dictatorship, prioritizing the immediate needs of the population and attacking the shortcomings of the current government are clearly positive signs – both for Tunisians and the region.
Whether Nidaa Tounes will be able to patch together a coalition viable and cohesive enough to address these needs remains to be seen.