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Nidaa Tounes and the spectre of autocratic rule

As Tunisia managed to counter both predictions of low voter turnout (an estimated 60 percent of the eligible voters came to the polls) and ensure a safe and secure voting process most people hailed the successful election procedure, which was deemed as free, fair and transparent by international observers. Analysts immediately began discussing the so-called “model of Tunisia” as a prime example of democratic transition.

The vote assured 85 of the Parliament’s 217 seats to Nidaa Tounes (“Tunisian Call”) and 69 seats to Islamist party Ennahdha (“Awakening”). Many had predicted the two parties to dominate the political scene, but some were surprised predicting Ennahdha to gain the majority of votes. Many western media outlets quickly (and joyfully) framed Nidaa Tounes’ win through a Western prism of secularism’s victory over Islamism in a simplified, black-and-white analyse.

However, this joy should not overlook critical points about Nidaa Tounes. Critics raise concern of a throwback to old regime practices as some fear that Nidaa Tounes may now come to dominate the Tunisian political landscape. The 2-year-young political party has ties to both the regime of the country’s first leader Habib Bourguiba (ruled for 30 years) and Zine al Abidine Ben Ali (ruled for 23 years), both with little understanding of the concept of democracy.

Many Tunisians are nostalgic about the rule of Bourguiba, by some described as “the Father of Tunisia.” The French educated ruler made among many things sure that religion was strictly separated from the state. The Bourguiba nostalgia has been an inspiration and recurrent theme in Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Sebsi’s political campaigning. The 87-year old leader came from a bourgeoisie background and held three minister positions under Bourguiba’s rule, where after he became one of Ben Ali’s ruling elite. Consequently several members of Ben Ali’s political party Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) and Bourguiba’s Destourians are now within Nidaa Tounes. The young, secular party is considered to bring together a wide mix of old-regime officials, secularists, businessmen and leftists united against political Islam. One of the political party’s slogan “Not voting for Nidaa is a vote for Ennahdha” and the “vote utile” (“useful vote,” encouraging people to not cast their vote on parties with slim chances) are believed to have had an important role in gaining votes from the other, smaller secular parties and adding to an increasingly political polarization between the two big parties: secular Nidaa Tounes vs. Islamist party Ennahdha.

Ennahdha quickly swallowed their pride and congratulated Caid Sebsi on the victory promising to work constructively for its country’s future, expressing an openness to join a governing political coalition. The Islamist party has many times demonstrated its commitment to democracy by for example handing over power to a technocratic government after the finalisation of the constitution in the beginning of 2014. “Ennahdha is, internally, Tunisia’s most democratic party,” explained Oxford researcher Monica Marks earlier this year.

Nidaa Tounes on the other hand has been known for making decisions in a top-down fashion, including nominating Caid Sebsi for President. Whilst Ennahda decided to not run for Presidential elections arguing that they did not want to dominate the political scene Nidaa Tounes showed no such restrictions. Instead predictions suggest that Caid Sebsi will be the frontrunner in the presidential vote on November 23. During his inauguration of his presidential campaign, symbolically placed in Monastir at the mausoleum with the remains of the so-called “Father of Tunisia,” Caid Sebsi vowed to “restore the prestige of the state” to the tunes of an old ode to Bourguiba.

With 85 seats, 109 are needed for reaching majority, Nidaa Tounes needs to form a coalition. Tunisia’s post-revolutionary commitment to cooperation, consensus and compromise, which has meant having an inclusive dialogue at all costs, often facilitated with the help of Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT, Tunisia’s strong and well respected labour union), is believed to have been key to Tunisia’s peaceful transition. To nurture this inclusive political climate step one will be forming an inclusive political coalition.

One of the party’s options is joining a coalition with the other non-Islamist parties. Ennahdha, after gaining the majority of votes in the country’s first elections in 2011, formed “the Troika,” with secular Ettakatol and The Congress Party of the Republic (CPR). However, the coalition became highly unpopular with time and this time around CPR received only four seats compared to its previous 16 and Ettakatol went from 12 seats in 2011 to only 1 seat. Therefore more likely coalition partners include the Free Patriotic Union, which gained 16 seats, the leftist coalition the Popular Front, which received 15 seats and Afek Tounes with 8 seats. Such a coalition will be “Easy from the ideological point of view but unstable in the management of transition and reforms that are awaiting the new government,” argued Djordje Todorovic, International Republican Institute’s Tunisia Resident Country Director.

Despite international media depiction of secularism’s defeat over Islamism almost every third Tunisian (27 percent) still voted for Ennahdha. The Islamist party will have about 16 seats fewer than Nidaa Tounes and remains a strong voice, not to be undermined. A coalition with Ennahdha is not excluded, negotiations are ongoing and a government of national unity would grant Ennahdha some ministry positions. A coalition between Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes would be stable, argued Todorovic, “but hard to sell to the party base,” and a national unity government including both big parties and smaller partners would be stable but “challenging,” explained Todorovic, adding that despite that there is rivalry between the two parties there is “great potential for dialogue.”

“The relation between Nidaa and us is very cordial,” explains Ennahdha politician Sayida Ounissi. “They already approached us to discuss the option of a national union government because they know very well that it is impossible to govern Tunisia without a large majority,” adding, “especially as important reforms need to be implemented the five next years.”

However, according to Ounissi there is no agreement yet and many experts deem a coalition unlikely. “It is a very tough decision,” she said, “we have to think about the national interest without loosing our values and listen to our basis all in the same time.” Ounissi also highlights the party’s alternative, “I think that we could also be useful in the opposition.”

A political coalition is unlikely to happen before the Presidential results are announced, argued Todorovic. National unity government or not, for the coming five years Nidaa Tounes will need to demonstrate its commitment to plural democracy. It will be up to the Tunisians, argued Todorovic, “I would not be concerned about one party dominating the political scene because we already saw in the parliamentary elections that Tunisians opted for several ideas and directions, not just one,” concluded Todorovic.

The next milestone for the Tunisian success story will be assuring that plural democracy is rooted in the Tunisian political landscape where no political party becomes too dominant.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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