The Upcoming Elections Rivalry in Tunisia

The Islamist party, Ennahda, won the first post-Ben Ali election of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) on October 23, 2011, forming a coalition government with two smaller parties. But months of unrest and conflicts obliged Ennahda to relinquish the government to overcome political deadlock and to join the National Dialogue. The dialogue paved the way for political consensus between the parties, allowing the NCA to complete and ratify the new constitution, nominate Mehdi Jomaa to lead a caretaker government to run the elections, pass a new electoral law, and reestablish the Independent High Authority for Elections (IHAE). The way forward may look like smooth sailing to the casual observer, but political positioning as elections approach is reigniting bitter competition.

Following the new constitution, presidential and legislative elections “will be organized before the end of 2014” (article 148, para. 3 of the Tunisian constitution). In this context, the debate over the election calendar reveals the different strategies of Ennahda and its main rival Nidaa Tounes, the two most popular parties at present.

Ennahda initially argued for concurrent presidential and legislative elections. Nidaa Tounes, however, favored presidential elections taking place before the legislative polls. Beji Caid Essebsi, the head of Nidaa Tounes, has enjoyed a recent surge in popularity since the Ennahda government stepped down. The party felt that if he could capitalize on the momentum and win the presidential elections, the results could sway the results of legislative elections to his party’s benefit. After long discussions, Ennahda accepted the separation of the elections, but insisted that legislative elections start first. The NCA agreed on June 25, setting the date of the upcoming parliamentary elections for October 26 and scheduling the subsequent rounds of presidential elections for November 23 and December 31, 2014.

Although Ennahda leaders conceded their initial position to their competitors, the party may have outmaneuvered their secular opponents. By this timetable, Ennahda hopes to take advantage of its popularity outside of Tunis to win a majority of seats in the parliamentary election. While this victory could shift the presidential results in Ennahda’s favor, the real prize lies elsewhere. Given the extended powers of the parliament and the prime minister under the new constitution, Ennahda could potentially reestablish its dominance over the political landscape through a parliamentary majority.

Rached Al-Ghannouchi, cofounder and leader of Ennahda, recently proposed an initiative to support an independent consensus president, keeping his party out of the contest. He argued that this initiative would not substitute for presidential elections, but agreement over a candidate would strengthen the democratic process in Tunisia and avoid the social and political schisms encountered by other Arab Spring states, such as Egypt. “Due to the fragile political and economic situation, we need consensus over a candidate who will win the elections by about 80 percent instead of 51 or 50.5percent,”he said.

Ennahda is fully aware of its own candidates’ inability to defeat Essebsi in the presidential elections. Ghannouchi’s proposal not only builds on the spirit of political compromise, but also turns the party’s weakness into a strength. In contributing to the selection of a consensus president, Islamists would succeed in avoiding two political risks linked to the powers of the president: First, it would keep Ennahda away from comparisons with former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ennhada, fearing a similar fate to its Egyptian counterpart, does not want the future president as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces tied to the party. More importantly, however, having a say in the candidacy for the next president can mitigate the threat to Ennahda representatives. Given the president’s constitutional right to dissolve parliament, it never hurts to have a friendly face in power. Many parties, activists, and civil society organizations, however, consider Ghannouchi’s proposal undemocratic. Predetermined presidential candidates, decided upon behind closed doors, by definition has a negative impact on transparency.

Secular parties hope to ensure wider participation in the elections, believing that sluggish voter registration could increase Ennahda’s chances of winning a majority. They aim to avoid the previous mistakes of the NCA elections, when Ennahda succeeded in mobilizing its voters but secular parties did not. Essebsi appealed for a one-month extension of the voter registration deadline, but the IHAE only officially approved a one-week extension. Leftist parties, such as the Popular Front Party, argued that the former Ennahda governments’ tolerance of the Salafi movements resulted in the last terrorism attacks in Chaambi Mountains. Even if leftist groups are correct in this assessment, they risk losing public support by focusing on criticizing Ennahda policies rather than presenting their own visions of the country future—the same mistake they made in the 2011 elections.

With the elections only a few months away, Ennahda still possesses the political pragmatism and subtlety that allows it to maintain its powerful position on the political scene. This moderate Islamist party has shown its political flexibility, while taking advantage of its powers within the NCA. Ennahda will likely continue the same strategy under the new semi-parliamentary system focusing on the legislative power.

Naim Ameur is a political and economic analyst based in Tunis specializing in issues concerning North Africa with a focus on Tunisian and Libyan affairs.

Image: Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's main Islamist party Ennahda, casts his vote for in Menzeh, near Tunis, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011. (Photo: Flickr/Parti Mouvement Ennahdha)