In Post-Election Tunisia, the Tricky Search for Allies

Three years after Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, swept the country’s first free and fair election, the party failed to secure the same position and came second in the legislative election that was held Sunday, Oct. 26. It lost to its secular opponent, Nida Tounes, a progressive party that was founded in July 2012 by its ...


Three years after Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, swept the country’s first free and fair election, the party failed to secure the same position and came second in the legislative election that was held Sunday, Oct. 26. It lost to its secular opponent, Nida Tounes, a progressive party that was founded in July 2012 by its current president Beji Caid Essebsi, a veteran politician who worked under the country’s post-independence president Habib Bourguiba as well as Tunisia’s former autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Last week’s election, which will give birth to a parliament mandated to represent the people for five years, is a major step toward a more solid and stable regime. Now that the High Electoral commission (know by its French acronym, ISIE) has released the preliminary election results, it is clear that no party will be able to govern by itself. Nida Tounes came out on top with a relative majority of 85 seats in the next 217-seat chamber. The party’s share of votes does not give it a mandate to govern by itself, but allows it to lead a ruling coalition. For days, the talk of the town in Tunis has focused on which parties Nida Tounes will pick as its ruling partners in the next stage. Its decision will impact the new council’s ability to make the structural reforms and crucial decisions related to economic and security issues that former transitional governments put off.

Ennahda, which won 69 seats in the most recent election (down from the 89 seats the party secured in the 2011 National Constituent Assembly election), said it is open to joining a potential coalition with Nida Tounes. Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist movement, said that it is better for Tunisia to be ruled by a coalition to avoid political polarization and explained that the transition in Tunisia requires consensual and participatory rule during a press conference held Thursday in Tunis. However, he added that his party would be happy to "serve the country either in government or in opposition." (In the photo above, a grinning Ghannouchi casts his vote.)

Ennahda may have announced its intentions, but Nida Tounes has so far refrained from laying out its plans. Said Aidi, a member of Nida Tounes and one of its elected members in the next parliament, said in a televised interview on Nessma TV that it will be hard for the party to make any decisions about the composition of the next ruling coalition before the presidential election next month. Nida Tounes has a stake in the election because its leader, Essebsi, is running for president. Essebsi has been leading opinion polls and may be lucky enough to sweep the presidential polls.

Khmais Kssila of Nida Tounes party said in an interview with Tunisian radio station Shems FM that his party basically has three options. The first is to form a coalition government with other non-Islamist forces and leave Ennahda in the opposition. The second is to form a government of national unity and have Ennahda as one of their allies on the condition that Ennahda endorses Nida Tounes’ presidential candidate or refrains from backing up any other presidential candidate. The third, which appears to be the least likely, is to form a non-political technocratic government.

The first option, excluding Ennahda from government, seems to be the preferred choice of the progressive camp, or "the democratic family," as they like to call themselves. Rim Mahjoub of Afek Tounes, a secular party that secured eight seats and won the fifth place in the most recent legislative elections, said that her party would prefer a coalition without Ennahda but did not rule out taking part in a large inclusive coalition that might include Ennahda. However, not all secular parties share the same position. For Mongi Rahoui, an elected member affiliated with the leftist Popular Front that came in fourth, Ennahda joining the ruling coalition is a deal-breaker.

"It is a red line for us. If Ennahda is in the government, it means we are in the opposition," he said.

While Rahoui hails from an alliance of leftist movements that includes the Workers Party (formerly known as the Communist Workers Party and which tends to hold anti-capitalist views), Nida Tounes is known for being pro-business. One might think that a potential coalition between parties who hold such divergent views might not be easy. However, Rahoui said that the current socioeconomic situation in Tunisia requires any party in government to follow a hybrid economic strategy that prioritizes social welfare but also encourages investment and entrepreneurship.

Nida Tounes’ Aidi echoed Rahoui’s comments and said the situation in Tunisia requires the state to focus on programs that improve people’s daily lives. Aidi added that it would not be the first time Popular Front and Nida Tounes joined arms. He was referring to the Salvation Front, a coalition that formed during last year’s political crisis after the assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi.

Now that the preliminary results have been released, Nida knows that it can build the necessary simple majority without allying with its Islamist rival. This makes a coalition between the two less and less likely.

"Counter-natural alliances do not work," said Aidi. "Maybe alternation to power is good for Tunisia."

An alliance with Ennahda could lead Nida Tounes to lose the support of some non-Islamist political forces, and could disappoint the people who voted for Nida because they wanted to put an end to Ennahda’s rule.

Nida has suggested that it may ally with Ennahda if the Islamist party decides to support Essebsi’s candidacy — but Ennahda does not appear willing to take such a risk and consolidate what it sees as the hegemony of Nida Tounes. Ennahda would probably prefer being in opposition to being in a government in which two of the three branches are controlled by Nida Tounes. The bright side is that a coalition between Nida Tounes and Ennahda would help Tunisia avoid more political polarization and would allow Nida Tounes to rule with a more comfortable majority.

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

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