Tunisia: How Ennahda Views the Upcoming Elections

With the presidential and legislative elections only a few weeks away, anxious Tunisians prepare to follow and participate in the political contest. Many wonder specifically as to the fate of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda party—particularly after the fall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—and whether Tunisia can remain the only example of a successful “Arab Spring” country. During this critical step in its democratic transition, awareness of the views of Ennahda’s leaders can help garner a better understanding of the country’s direction and its overall transitional process. Mr. Ridha Saidi, one of the best known faces within Ennahda’s executive office and former State Minister for Economic and Social Affairs under former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, accepted an interview to discuss the party’s political and economic views.

Ennahda Candidate for the Presidential Elections

Rached al-Ghannouchi, founder and leader of the Ennahda movement, surprised some observers of Tunisian politics when he declared that the party would not field a candidate for the presidential elections, despite its political prowess in previous elections. When asked about the absence of a candidate for this election, Mr. Saidi indicated that his party made a conscious decision not to dominate state institutions.

Saidi noted that Ennahda’s priority lies not its desire to control the presidency, but rather to continue building upon the consensus reached with secular parties during the national dialogue. Consensus and dialogue have saved the country in crucial phases. Thus the goal is to agree, with the different parties, on an independent candidate who will not serve the interests of any party, but who will care about all Tunisians, protect the revolution, and help bring together divergent views during times of hardship.

“The elections are not the last phase of the democratic transition. We are still in the first steps toward democracy and in a fragile situation. Future municipal elections, as an example, represent another basic phase of the democratic process,” said Saidi. “Therefore, we will need an independent president able to unify the different parties, and guarantee the political stability.” He also added that Ennahda’s Shura Council would discuss, in few days, potential names that it could propose to other parties.

Despite Ennahda’s position, most parties have already presented their candidates for the presidential elections, making it unclear how the Islamist party could hope to garner support for a consensus candidate for the presidency. Mr Saidi explained that the parties’ candidates will compete with independents, in the first round. Ennahda will then redouble its efforts to promote the idea of a consensus candidate in the second round.

Candidates for the Legislative Elections

For the legislative elections, the party has a different approach to candidate selection as compared to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elections organized three years ago. In 2011, prioritizing control over drafting the constitution, Ennahda selected humanitarians, lawyers, and religious figures to represent the party and reflect its vision concerning identity and the nature of the state. The upcoming legislative elections, however, require candidates with more specific competencies in the fields of economics, development, and legal analysis, said Saidi. Ennahda hopes to place these candidates, charged with implementing the constitutional provisions they helped design. The new list of candidates include known businessmen, other technocrats, and younger members with an average age of 45. The shift in leadership, however, has created some resentment and disappointed among some of the older members within the party—though not enough to create any significant divisions among members.

Expectations about the Transitional Process

“Ennahda supports the current caretaker government in organizing successful elections and insists on honest rivalry.” Saidi said. Party members remain optimistic regarding the overall process and public acceptance of the electoral results. Ennahda appears satisfied with the new Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), believing that the dates set for the political contests could be realized. It hopes to increase its parliamentary gains to 47 percent of the parliament’s seats (102 of the 217 seats) rather than the 42 percent realized in the NCA elections three years ago.

Ennahda’s derives its optimism from its preparatory activities. First, the party improved its platform based on the experience and lessons learned while in the government since 2012. Second, the party—known for its organizational prowess—conducted its own surveys, not only to discover voter intentions, but also to identify their priorities and expectations. Third, Ennahda joined with many parties to sign the honor pact in order to guarantee free competition.

However, Saidi worries that domestic and foreign threats could potentially derail the elections. Local groups expecting unfavorable elections results could cause trouble, while terrorists and foreign actors could conduct or facilitate destabilizing attacks to see the democratic process in Tunisia fail.

Coalition Possibilities

Would Ennahda continue its strategy of coalition with secular parties after the upcoming elections? Mr. Saidi considers the coalition with secular parties as a successful experience. It allowed the party to face less political pressure in times of conflicts. According to Saidi, Ennahda’s Shura Council plans to expand its coalition policy to involve the maximum of political partners in the future government after the elections, inviting even leftist parties to participate in the coalition. “Consensus is so important for Ennahda that it could accept the appointment of a prime minister from another party or an independent,” says Saidi.

Expected Challenges after the Elections

“After the elections, the main challenge is to regain state strength and prestige. We should guarantee the respect for rule-of-law and state institutions. Citizens have a range of obligations and must achieve higher productivity at work,” confirms Saidi.

However, he also cited security as a significant challenge to overcome, given its effect on most sectors. He noted, for instance, how terrorism could affect the tourism sector, which could drag down the whole economy. Second, the country will face financial pressures to cover the increasing expenditures and to ensure budget balances. Third, the government will have trouble investing, given the decrease in savings due to changes in household behavior over the last few years.

Economic Vision

Mr. Saidi confirmed the continuation of the “Go and Stop” policy, an alternating stimulus-budget stabilization policy that began two years ago. With Tunisia currently in the “stop” phase, Ennahda plans to promote investment and enhance its business climate by developing telecommunication infrastructure and implementing a gradual switch to e-services.

He added that the country can improve its financial resources through investing in sectors with high value-add potential, such as digital technologies and the pharmaceutical industry. As the private sector grows, it should then create more job opportunities. In addition, infrastructure projects that facilitate business can be financed through Public-Private Partnerships—an initiative that Mr. Saidi had closely studied and pursued while in government.

Moreover, several reforms are listed on the party plan, including reform of the compensation system, tax reform for social equality, and mechanisms to fight tax evasion. Saidi links the development of Islamic finance in Tunisia to reform of the financial or banking system reform in order to seize new financing opportunities.

Mr. Saidi ended the interview with optimism, saying that Tunisia’s democratic transition will likely succeed, reiterating the consensus that Ennahda will try to build after the elections. 

Saidi’s comments suggest that Ennahda will continue its pragmatic politics: insisting on consensus, collaborating with secular parties, and integrating independent, technocratic competencies in candidates for the legislative elections. The party has no doubt learned valuable lessons over its two-year experience in government. Allowing other parties to participate in the government will shrewdly permit Ennahda to share responsibility for future reforms with them in the executive while effectively controlling legislation in a powerful parliament.

Ennahda’s strategy, however, depends on two factors outside of its control: the other parties’ acceptance for coalition, collaboration, and consensus and the election results. Even with superior mobilization skills and its popularity in some regions, two important factors can change voter opinions. First, the threat of terrorism in Tunisia and in several Arab countries has soured views concerning political Islam—a point that could (and likely will be) used against Ennahda. Second, campaign financing may be used to influence electors’ decisions and elections’ results—especially given that Ennahda’s opponents are well financed.

In all cases, Ennahda has been one of the most important actors in the political scene, after the uprising. It has shown much flexibility and internal stability while other parties face internal weaknesses and divisions. Ennahda’s views will undoubtedly set an important tone to the future political landscape in Tunisia. As long as it maintains its views toward inclusive politics, the outlook seems promising.

Naim Ameur is a political and economic analyst based in Tunis. His current specialty includes issues concerning North Africa, particularly Tunisian and Libyan affairs. This article is based on an interview with Mr. Ridha Saidi, member of Ennahda executive office, on August 28, 2014.

Image: Ridha Saidi (right) with Houcine Zajiri (left) at a meeting of the National Constituent Assembly in January 2013. (Photo: Wikimedia)