The Middle East Channel

Shaping Ennahda’s re-election strategy

Less than six months after the country’s first democratic elections and only four months into the government’s mandate, Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahda, has announced its intentions to hold the country’s next elections one year from now. The announcement came as a surprise as some thought the government was set on taking its time, while others ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Less than six months after the country’s first democratic elections and only four months into the government’s mandate, Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahda, has announced its intentions to hold the country’s next elections one year from now. The announcement came as a surprise as some thought the government was set on taking its time, while others questioned how a government that has only just begun writing a constitution could plan for elections. Although some parties in the constituent assembly have dissented from the announcement, with Ennahda’s backing, it will likely proceed as announced.

While outside the country Tunisia’s successful elections and relatively peaceful transition have been praised, Tunisians have been more skeptical. Many have criticized the government’s slow pace and opposition parties have capitalized on the perceived inaction by the government on the economy and security situation. The electoral timetable, along with the government’s recently released budget, are both tactical and strategic. The timetable will ward off criticism of its intentions to hold power indefinitely and the deadline will set the pace for constitution writing in the coming year. The budget-busting spending will aim to curry favor among voters, who are eager to see tangible material benefits from their historic uprising. Together, one begins to see the foundations for Ennahda’s electoral strategy.

The announcement of the timetable is most welcome and a relief to those who feared the government would try to preserve its mandate indefinitely. Despite that the timetable exceeds the one-year limit that had been agreed upon by a coalition of parties, including Ennahdha, last September, it will allow all political parties to focus on their electoral strategies, their potential weaknesses, and areas they will want to exploit for electoral gain next March.

For Ennahda, its strategy approaching elections is coming into focus. It is based on three principles — spend big, marginalize opponents, and blame others for failures.

During the elections for the constituent assembly, Ennahda promised to turn around Tunisia’s economy, however, it has struggled in its first few months to hold true to those commitments. The ruling party is attempting to change that with its recently released budget, which proposes a massive 10 percent increase in government expenditures. Based on rosy projections of increased tax receipts and tracking down and selling off Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s assets, the budget increases development spending, in particular, by 23 percent. Economists (and international institutions like the World Bank) have supported increased development spending, particularly for rural areas. Whereas the World Bank has advocated long-term structural changes to the economy, this year’s budget makes it clear that Ennahda will look to disburse these development funds as quickly as possible.

This poses risks, however, particularly with Tunisia’s creditors. While the United States and Qatar have recently supported a Tunisian bond auction, ratings agencies were concerned over Tunisia’s budget deficit of 3.7 percent in 2011. With the deficit expected to balloon to over 6.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, the country, and its fragile banking sector, may be subject to increasing speculation about its long-term financial stability.

A second tactic Ennahda seems intent on employing is the characterization of its opponents as extremists. The party aims to project itself as the guarantor of Tunisia’s moderate center, while at the same time pushing the center to the right. Recent statements by Ennahda’s leadership group "fundamentalist" and "extreme" secularists with radical Islamist groups. This is an interesting strategy because it co-opts the language used by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali that described the government as the guarantor of a certain Tunisian moderation. It also shows opponents of the regime as not only divisive, but also dangerous.

This is a strategy fraught with risks. It opens the doors for political speech to much more extreme language. In reality, Ennahda’s reverence for a civil state and modern, democratic institutions is quite similar to the secularists’. This vision differs from radical Salafist parties, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, that advocate for a rejection of democracy and a return to a caliphate. By using the language of extremism, Ennahda is equating a party like the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), a moderate left wing group, with the Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is an absurd comparison. Ennahda and its secular opponents have much more in common with each other than with Hizb ut-Tahrir. But by characterizing its secular opponents as extremists, Ennahda looks like the party that is trying to divide Tunisia into two — not the other way around.

In contrast to the marginalization of the left, Ennahda is employing a "light touch" when dealing with fundamentalist conservative parties. Many Tunisians have been shocked to see images of Salafist groups tearing down the Tunisian flag at Manouba University or climbing the historic clocktower on Bourguiba Avenue to wave Salafist flags. To the consternation of many, Ennahda has preferred to let these groups participate in public life, and have sometimes even supported their positions — such as guaranteeing the rights of women who wear the full face veil. While the Ennahda-led government has spoken out against the dangers of violent jihadism, it prefers to engage the far right, rather than push them underground.

A third strategy utilized by Ennahda is to blame its opponents for any challenges. For example, the government revised down its GDP forecasts because of ongoing labor unrest. This is undoubtedly an important factor in Tunisia’s economic situation, but it is certainly not the only one. The instability with the country’s major trading partner, Libya, the debt crisis in Europe, and problems with security also play into the equation. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the country’s leading trade union, and other critics of the government, however, remain the best scapegoats for Ennahda. Likewise, the government often blames violence on rogue elements of the former regime accusing them of trying to destabilize the government. Meanwhile, Ennahda fails to address whether the government is adequately responding to the security situation. 

Ennahda’s strategy is not just a Machiavellian calculation to retain power; it is also due to the corner they have been painted into by their opponents. For decades Ennahda has been labeled an extremist party, despite all efforts to throw off the label — including 20 years of statements by the movement’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi. The party seems to have finally realized that it is more advantageous to use extremist terminology on its opponents than to fight it. The same is true for the economic situation. Before the new government even took power critics were blaming the party for indecision and inaction on the economy. While Ennahda’s strategy is political and often mischaracterizes its opponents, the party is playing by the electoral rules.

The electoral timetable announcement and the agreement to reinstate the electoral commission, the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE), are positive steps. Ennahda has done the country a service in setting out a clear path. It is in the driver’s seat for the next 12 months and it will be an interesting ride to see how Ennahda campaigns and whether its opponents can find a counter-attack against what remains a very popular movement.

Erik Churchill is an analyst and development consultant based in Tunisia. He blogs about Tunisian politics at Kefteji.

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