Tunisian Elections: The Islamist Experiment

A Tunisian woman passes a wall covered with posters of
candidates during last week’s campaign for electing the
constitutional assembly. (Photo: AFP – Fethi Belaid)
Published Friday, October 28, 2011
Tunisians have elected a conservative-leaning constituent assembly dominated by the Islamist al-Nahda Party. The country home to the first outbreak of the Arab revolt will be a testing ground for an Islamist-led attempt to establish a true democracy.

Opinions of Tunisian citizens may not differ much from those of expert analysts except in one respect, they express no surprise at the results of the elections which saw the electoral defeat of historical political parties. The Tunisian people have chosen a conservative rather than liberal direction for their country.

Hamadi Redissi, comparative politics professor and head of the Political Science Department in the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences at the University of Tunis, told al-Akhbar: “Many factors came together leading to this result. The Tunisian people settled the struggle over cultural identity that flared up in the past few months when they chose conservative parties whose electoral platforms advocated protecting Tunisia’s Arab and Muslim identity.” The electoral victory of parties with conservative and traditional orientations is a blow to their leftist counterparts, who, the professor said, fell in the trap of a cultural identity struggle which led to their resounding defeat.

According to Redissi, it has been assumed for a while now that there will be coalitions inside the constituent assembly. News has already surfaced that the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party will form a coalition with the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR), headed by Moncef Marzouki, and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (FDTL or Ettakatol), creating a coalition with a big majority in the constituent assembly.

The assembly is charged with writing a new constitution for Tunisia that will last for generations to come, determining the nature of the future political system and putting forward basic laws for public life. Redissi said the political system that will be adopted in Tunisia is the parliamentary system proposed by the al-Nahda party in its political program and supported, to a certain extent, by CPR.
Redissi expressed his disapproval of the parliamentary system proposed by al-Nahda because it might lead to an ineffective quota system that will not serve Tunisia well, pointing in this context to the parliamentary system in Lebanon. Redissi prefers the semi-presidential system like the one in France. This is also the preference of the parties that lost the elections such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the left-leaning Democratic Modernist Pole (El-Qutb).

Redissi said that al-Nahda will not be able to form a national unity government because of PDP’s and El-Qutb’s refusal to join such a coalition. The two parties will probably take on the role of the opposition especially considering that the constituent assembly will last for only one year. Al-Nahda will therefore resort to forming a majority coalition government with the parties that will join it.
Sources close to al-Nahda told al-Akhbar that leaders of al-Nahda, CPR, and Ettakatol have met to discuss the possibility of building a coalition that will form an absolute majority in the assembly.
Former Tunisian diplomat and political analyst Abdallah Obeidi wonders whether such an alliance between political parties that are not familiar with each other can function effectively. He adds that these elections produced a political terrain in which three different political groups have emerged. The first is a group influenced by the West; the second stands against the West; and the third, which he called the “constitutional” group, is somewhere between and is influenced by Habib Bourguiba’s legacy.
These constitutionalists who have shaped Tunisia’s political system since independence fared poorly in these elections. This suggests that Tunisians have chosen to break with the past and the political system set forth by founding president Bourguiba. Obeidi, however, doubts this, arguing that 90 percent of the constitutionalists moved to al-Nahda and other conservative parties after the fall of Ben Ali.

Obeidi called for dialogue between the political parties that won seats in the constituent assembly for the sake of stability. He emphasized the need for dialogue to rewrite the constitution, given that there will be more than one coalition in the assembly. Obeidi says that the biggest challenge lies in creating a national accord between the various political forces that won the elections.

Despite the political challenges facing Tunisia today, Tunisian political analyst Muhammad Toueir considers the assembly’s political make-up a good one as no political party can dominate without alliances. Agreement between the various political parties is therefore inevitable if they want to achieve what the Tunisian people want out of these elections. Toueir pointed out that the opposition will have a big role to play in exercising oversight over the government, explaining that the concept of opposition will change after the elections.

Even though the elections have been criticized, Toueir is optimistic about the results, saying Tunisia will not go back in time. The majority that will be created through a coalition in the assembly will guarantee the fulfillment of the Tunisian people’s dream since no party achieved absolute majority and the assembly is serving a one-year term. If al-Nahda fails to achieve what it promised the people in its electoral platform, then it will have dug its own grave. Asked about the West’s relations with the forthcoming Tunisian government, Toueir says the West and the rest of the world await the results of a young democratic experiment in the first country of the Arab Spring.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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