On Election Eve in Tunisia, Secular Politicians Still Can’t Get It Together

Only a few days separate Tunisia from another historic achievement. For the second time since the ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali nearly four years ago, millions of Tunisians are set to flock to polling booths this Sunday, Oct. 26. (In the photo above, a Tunisian expat casts an early ...


Only a few days separate Tunisia from another historic achievement. For the second time since the ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali nearly four years ago, millions of Tunisians are set to flock to polling booths this Sunday, Oct. 26. (In the photo above, a Tunisian expat casts an early vote in Paris.)

After successive interim governments, Tunisians will vote for a long-awaited parliament mandated to serve as the country’s legislative body for a five-year term, a step that will consolidate the country’s feeble democratic transition that was fraught by political uncertainty, deterioration of economic situation, and an unprecedented surge of militant activity and religious extremism.

While some people see in the upcoming election a hope for a more stable political situation and a more certain future, others — disillusioned and fatigued by the post-revolution political bickering — say they will not turn out to vote.

Despite voter registration campaigns and efforts by the High Electoral Commission, known by its French acronym ISIE, voter registration has been relatively low. Samira Marai, a former member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the elected legislative body that drafted Tunisia’s constitution, said people have lost faith and confidence in politicians.

"I get people telling me all political parties are only eager to serve their own interests and not their constituents," added Marai, who is affiliated with the secular Afek Tounes party. "There is a crisis of trust." According to her, a major reason for the sense of disillusionment among many Tunisans is the failure of progressive parties to unite, leaving the secular political camp fragmented and chaotic. "We [secular parties] should have come together under the leadership of one party. We could have done it. But the problem in Tunisia is that every political party thinks it is strong enough to win enough votes."

She’s probably right. One of the main factors that helped the Islamist Ennahda party win the highest number of votes in 2011 was the bewildering plethora of leftist and secular parties. Voters who didn’t want to vote for the Islamists had far too many options. As a result, secular votes ended up being scattered among small parties, which came to be known as the sefr fassel ("zero point") parties. Supporters of the parties in the governing troika coalition (the tripartite ruling alliance that encompassed Ennahda and two other centrist parties, the social democratic Ettakatol and the centrist CPR) came up with the expression to mock the minuscule percentage of the popular vote the secular parties won during the 2011 election.

Shortly after that election, those parties said that they learned the lesson and expressed their intentions to merge together under the banner of a progressive party. By July 2012, Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old veteran who served under the former regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, formed the Nida Tounes bloc, which brought together some liberal political activists with former regime figures. The founders said they created the party to balance the political scene and form a counterweight to the Islamists. Nida Tounes discussed potential coalitions with other parties. But most of those talks failed to translate into real results.

Tunisia’s political mosaic consists today of Ennahda, which dominates the Islamist camp, and Nida Tounes, plus a multitude of centrist, secular, and leftist parties. Although Nida Tounes and Ennahda are thought to be the frontrunners, neither of them is expected to obtain the absolute majority of votes required to form a government.

While Ennahda has its own distinct base of voters, the remaining political parties on the secular front are forced to compete with each other for votes from overlapping groups of potential supporters. As polling day approaches, the secular parties are getting increasingly desperate.

The trending phrase in Tunisia social media these days is "#vote_utile" ("useful vote"), a concept promoted by many politicians and activists who are pushing people to vote pragmatically and refrain from giving their votes to parties with low chances in the upcoming election.

"I saw everyone talking about the useful vote," said Imed Mzoughi, a 38-year-old architect. "I’m not a big fan of Nida Tounes. I hate the fact that they’re bringing back many faces from the Ben Ali and Bourguiba eras. But I will vote for Nida because I don’t want my vote to be lost and contribute to a second victory for Ennahda." He admitted that he didn’t feel deeply committed to his own choice, but didn’t see much of an alternative. "If I vote for any of the other smaller parties, my vote will be useless."

Some of the smaller parties think it’s unfair that they have to pay for everyone’s failure to unite. Fadhel Moussa, affiliated with the Union for Tunisia, a coalition of center-left parties and independents, said that his party has taken people’s concerns and complaints into account. He said his party chose the merger with other smaller parties to avoid repeating the 2011 scenario of loosely distributed votes. "These scattered votes are a catastrophe for Tunisia. It is happening again because many parties chose to run with their own lists instead of merging with other parties," he said.

Moussa blames big parties like Nida Tounes for not taking previous alliance attempts seriously. He characterized the attitude of Nida Tounes toward smaller parties as "hegemonic." "Nidaa Tounes signed a contract with us and said that they will partner with us after the election. We are their partners but that isn’t how they’re acting," he said.  "It’s not a very smart attitude to get greedy and undermine your ally when you know that you won’t be able to get the absolute majority anyway."

Lazher Akremi a candidate affiliated with Nida Tounes, said that his party won’t be affected by the scattered votes. "The phenomenon of dispersed votes might decrease the chances of Nida Tounes. But our party is bigger than that." He insisted that Nida Tounes is open to forming post-election coalitions but that doesn’t mean that the party won’t try to get as many votes for itself as possible.

"This is an electoral competition," he said. "I’m not going to tell people to go and vote for other parties. If I know I can gather more votes by telling people that they have to be pragmatic and vote for the party with the higher chances, then I’ll do it."

One can’t help but wonder how many elections Tunisian secular parties need in order to realize that they’re strongest when they’re united. Tunisian voters, meanwhile, are growing more and more apathetic to the whole political process. While political parties blame Tunisian voters for their lack of political awareness and sense of citizenship, they should realize that their own immature behavior and their inability to learn from their failure during the 2011 election are one of the main reasons for that apathy.

Asma Ghribi is the Tunisia blogger for Transitions, and tweets @AsmaGhribi. Read the rest of her posts here.

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