Tunisia’s Elections a Test of Commitment

During the drafting of the Tunisian constitution, adopted in January 2014, it was axiomatic to say that passing a text was a serious challenge, but that implementation would be even more daunting. The constitution’s first serious test will come after October 26, when Tunisian authorities will hold the first legislative elections under the new constitution. Candidates will run for 217 seats in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, as the parliament will be called. The elections—and the governing coalition formed afterward—marks an important first step in securing democracy in Tunisia, perhaps the only country left standing in the wake of Arab Spring.

It is difficult to imagine a greater need for a model of democracy in the Arab world: Libya teeters on the brink of civil war; Egypt tumbles into old patterns of authoritarianism; President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s health leaves open questions about the future of the Algerian regime. Prospects for systemic reform in Algeria are small given the jihadist threat represented by Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) but felt all across the region—not least in Tunisia, the home of a large share of ISIS fighters, perhaps up to 2,000. In the context of limited policy options for containing jihadist threats, supporting consensus politics and genuine economic opportunity in Tunisia should be an obvious win for the United States and Europe.

The parliamentary elections represent the first step toward consecrating democracy in Tunisia. The election results, while difficult to predict, will virtually guarantee a multiparty governing coalition. This coalition, which will select a prime minister, will also have to work alongside the President of the Republic whom Tunisians will elect on November 23. A second round of voting will be held on December 28 if none of the twenty-seven candidates win a majority.

Balance legislative and executive power in accordance with the new constitutional arrangement is perhaps the most delicate anticipated challenge. Tunisia’s constitution makers addressed the legacy of post-authoritarian rule by distributing power widely between the president, the prime minister, the parliament, and a new constitutional court. At least on paper, executive and legislative power is thoroughly checked, perhaps to a fault. Consensus among political actors will be critical to avoiding deadlock in a diffuse political system.

The constitution envisions a dual executive, modeled after French semi-presidentialism. But unlike in France, the prime minister is quite powerful, and given the electoral system, is unlikely to come from the same political party. The prime minister appoints and directs cabinet ministers, with the exception of the minister of defense and foreign affairs. The prime minister is appointed by the parliamentary governing coalition, not by the president. But the president is always quite powerful, with authority over foreign and national-security policy, including states of emergency. The president can veto legislation and dissolve parliament, under certain circumstances. Political parties will have to seek consensus across the parliamentary coalition and the presidency in order to avoid deadlock.

The depth of this challenge, of course, will depend on the parties that win these posts and their willingness to compromise. Nidaa Tounes (led by former Ben Ali cabinet minister Beji Caid Essebsi) and Ennahda (the Islamist party) currently lead the polls in a showdown between the old guard and moderate Islamists mostly forced into exile from the 1980s until the revolution. Among decided voters, Ennahda is polling at around 20 percent and Nidaa Tounes around 40 percent, according to a June-July survey. Other parties, including leftists, socialists, and moderates, have not polled higher than 10 percent. But undecided voters could comprise as high as 60 percent of the voter pool and polling in Tunisia is notoriously unreliable, meaning that the parliamentary election is wide open.

One reason for the unreliability of opinion polls in Tunisia is that they are not analyzed in the way that the elections commission tallies ballots. For one thing, polls are national and are not broken down by electoral district, so it is impossible to translate these data into seats. The electoral system also uses a “Hare quota” which, for technical reasons, makes it easier for smaller parties to win seats and, therefore, tends toward legislatures that are more diverse. Nearly 1,500 electoral lists have been presented across thirty-three constituencies; the large number of lists and undecided voters, in addition to the electoral system, make the chances of any party winning an outright majority quite slim.

The next big challenge, therefore, will be the negotiations between winning parties. Murmurs of a grand coalition between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, while still unlikely, could potentially come to fruition in light of Ennahda’s decision not to compete against Essebsi in the presidential elections. Absent a grand coalition, Nidaa Tounes or Ennahda might race against each other to align with smaller parties in order to win a majority. Ennahda president Rached Ghannouchi also indicated in October that Ennahda seeks to join a broad coalition. That could yield intriguing, but challenging negotiations and counterintuitive coalitions. Ennahda demonstrated its skill in coalition building in the 2011 elections for the National Constituent Assembly, aligning with the socialist Ettakatol and the moderate Congress for the Republic when an alliance with only one of them would have achieved the requisite majority.

By 2015, Tunisia will have gone through at least six peaceful transfers of power since the 2011 revolution: between five prime ministers, two presidents, and two parliaments. That is a remarkable accomplishment in a region where power struggles are so often fraught or violent. The legislative elections are shaping up to be another demonstration of—and challenge to—Tunisia’s commitment to consensus.

Duncan Pickard is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: A polling agent carries a ballot box at a primary polling station during a simulation exercise one week before the October 26 parliamentary elections in Tunis October 18, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)