Tunisia’s Long Road Ahead

When it comes to the narrative of Arab democracies, Sunday, October 26 marked a historic day. Tunisia, the country that sparked the so-called Arab Spring, held its first elections under a post-revolution constitution. There were two key takeaways from the milestone parliamentary elections: first, despite concerns of high voter abstention, an estimated 60 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls, about 10 percent more than in 2011; and second, though official results are still forthcoming, a respectful concession by Islamists demonstrated a political maturity that is rather encouraging, especially considering it was only a year ago when heightened polarization threatened to derail the country’s transition. The two highlighted points, however, underscore the tremendous work that lies ahead in nurturing a stable, inclusive, successful democracy. 

The political landscape in Tunisia is far more nuanced than what has been broadly depicted as secularist versus Islamist, obligating consensus-based governance if Tunisia is to stay on course. While liberal party Nidaa Tounes has won the most seats, it does not have a majority and will need to rule by coalition. After months of intense political competition and negotiations throughout the transitional period, Tunisia watchers may see some signs of political posturing, as for example with reports citing Nidaa Tounes officials not explicitly committing to inviting their Ennahda opponents to negotiations. That is, after all, how the game is played. In reality, however, if Nidaa Tounes wishes to demonstrate leadership and governance capabilities – and not just that it can win an election – it will need to find a way to work with Islamists. This is because, aside from the two major parties, the Tunisian electorate is fragmented into numerous smaller parties that carry little weight and would not have enough pull, even if they all banded together, to rule with the leading party.

A Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition would help the country deal with simmering security challenges. Radical Islamists were behind the assassinations of two high-profile political leaders Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid last year when Ennahda was leading the governing coalition. These fatal episodes tipped public dissatisfaction with Ennahda over the edge, as protesters demanded, among other grievances, that the Islamist party do more to rein in its fringe elements. Anti-government demonstrations reached such heights that they pressured Ennahda to enter into a national dialogue that culminated in them stepping down and transferring power to a technocratic caretaker administration. The fact that the differences were resolved through dialogue, however tenuous, was commended, but the way in which the events came to pass, especially in light of developments in Egypt with Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, could easily be interpreted by radicals as an intentional, aggressive marginalization of Islamists from the political sphere. Such an impression is fodder for further extremism, especially if the reality of Ennahda’s size and influence is ignored. On the other hand, these elections provide an opportunity to invite the Islamists to the negotiating table and engage in a healthy political discourse about forming a coalition government and moving the country forward. This practice of inclusiveness would go a long way in tempering extremist tendencies.

Moreover, a consensus-based, unity government would present a more formidable force to tackling terrorism. Terrorist groups have been seeking haven in Tunisia’s border regions and increasingly wreaking havoc, a consequence of spillover from the tumult in neighboring countries and overstretched and weakened Tunisian authorities in the transition period. The problem requires a multi-faceted response, from more immediate counter-terrorism measures to longer term development and counter-extremism programs. The parties and individual members of parliament will need to work together to allocate the sufficient funds, to oversee the progress, and to project a determined front when seeking help from international partners who, in this climate of fiscal austerity, may feel more incentive to give generously if they believe they have reliable partners on the other side. Achieving these steps would be greatly hindered if the major parties played politics and opposed each other’s proposals for the sake of catering to their bases. That would be an unfortunate case of parochialism over the common good, as security in Tunisia has vastly deteriorated over the last few years and requires a robust response.

Beyond these positive consequences of building a coalition government, a culture of dialogue and inclusiveness is necessary to sustain and in fact grow the momentum from these elections, especially when it comes to legitimizing the democratic process. The roughly 60 percent voter turnout is a remarkable figure considering widespread perceptions of voter apathy and disillusionment. This, however, should not be taken for granted as a vote of confidence for the democratic experiment. Credibility in governance is not bestowed merely by an electoral victory. It must be earned and maintained. Moreover, anecdotal accounts suggest that the youth largely stayed away from polling centers – illustrative of their growing disillusionment and marginalization. Given the youth bulge in the country, political parties and leaders must cultivate the next generation of civic activism if the democratic process is to be upheld and respected. If they are to win the confidence of the public at large, and youth in particular, they cannot allow political disagreements to get in the way of passing reforms necessary to improve the livelihood of a population that has borne the brunt of economic hardship since 2011. Attracting foreign direct investment and creating an inviting environment for businesses, will, much like the security issue, require stability. That is easier to achieve when the major parties are demonstrating their willingness and ability to work together and deliver on promises, rather than bickering and making little progress.

As major election monitoring organizations have noted, Tunisia’s milestone parliamentary elections indeed ought to be hailed for their inclusivity and transparency. But elections and governing are two different battles. While the first is by nature competitive, the latter can only succeed if there is cooperation. Tunisia’s political parties must now demonstrate that they are up to the task. 

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a focus on the politics and economics of North Africa.

Lara Talverdian is an assistant director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on Tunisia.

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Image: Beji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes party leader, waves outside Nidaa Tounes headquarters in Tunis October 28, 2014. Official results from Sunday's elections - the second parliamentary vote since Tunisians set off uprisings across much of the Arab World by overthrowing autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali - were still to be announced. But a senior official at Ennahda, which ruled in a coalition until it was forced to make way for a caretaker government during a political crisis at the start of this year, acknowledged defeat by the secular Nidaa Tounes party. (Photo: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)