Elections in Tunisia: the « spring » and the ballot

By Servane Poncet, Institut MEDEA

While the popular uprisings that started in 2011 in the Arab world progressively turned into another form of authoritarianism, as in Egypt, or into civil war, as in Syria or Libya, Tunisia seems to stand out by carrying out successfully its political transition. After the legislative elections on the 26th of October, that took place without any major incident, the country is holding its second election in two months. Despite the political crisis and the concerning security issues, democracy is making its way.

A historical election

On Sunday 23th of November 2014, the Tunisians were called to elect their new president. However, since the adoption of the new republican Constitution on the 10th of February, most of the executive power will be in the hands of the Prime minister. Therefore, this election could seem of less importance than the legislative. Nonetheless, its symbolic value remains strong in a country that has known only two presidents since its independence – Habib Bourguiba from 1956 to 1987 and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from 1987 to 2011 – both of whom were not democratically elected. This vote marks the end of the presidential system and of the one-party rule in Tunisia, challenged by the revolution of 2011.

The election itself is a turning point in Tunisian political life because it gives the way for the first time to pluralism: not less than 22 candidates were competing, with various profiles; from the old political figures to the newcomers, such as the businessman Slim Riahi, the “Tunisian Berlusconi”, whose party obtained a respectable forth place at the legislatives in October. Two candidates already qualified for the second round: Moncef Marzouki, who gathered 33,43% of the votes, and Beji Caïd Essebsi, who, with 39,46% of the votes, is in a good position. This foreseeable dual (the two probable candidates to the run-off?) seem to announce the bipolarization of Tunisian political life, seen by many as a threat.

Candidates of change, candidates from the past?

Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist sent to exile and a historical opponent to Ben Ali, had been elected by the Constituent Assembly as the transitional president in December 2011, following an agreement with Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, forming what has been called the “troika”. His alliance with the Islamists has been heavily criticized, however he managed to build himself an image of protector of the revolution, asking neither for the return to Ben Ali regime, nor to Bourguiba’s. Denouncing the return to power of old corrupted leaders, he attracted a large part of Ennahda’s traditional voters, since the party suffered from the former regime’s suppression.

His opponent, Béji Caïd Essebsi, embodies the defense of Bourguiba’s heritage and the gains of modern Tunisia, that he considers being threatened by Ennahda. Firmly anti-islamist, he advocates for a return of State authority/control, at a time when security is one of Tunisians’ main concerns. However, Caïd Essebsi’s profile is not the kind to inspire a new era: the 88 year-old candidate was Bourguiba’s Interior Minister and president of the Parliament under Ben Ali. Nominated transitional Prime minister between February and December 2011, he founded his own party in spring 2012, Nidaa Tounes – “Call of Tunisia” – that has become the main political group thanks to its result in the legislative election: the party won 86 seats over 217. His success can be explained by the plurality of his electorate: bourgeoisie and middle class, progressive people, Arab nationalists, intellectuals, former actors of the regime who want to come back on the political stage… This heterogeneity can be seen as a “useful vote”, but also as the sign of an unclear political projects gathering people unsatisfied of the Marzouki presidency and of Ennahda.

There are two antagonistic projects and personalities confronting each other. It is a paradox that, after the islamists’ victory in 2011, a “modernist” party wins the legislative elections and is in a good place to win the presidential election. This can be explained by the failure of the “troika” and the criticisms towards Ennahda since its participation in the transitional government, especially on its poor economic results. The long suppression of the party under the former regime has restored its legitimacy and a certain credibility. But it appeared in the eyes of the electors that the party was not less affected by corruption than the others, and furthermore, that he didn’t succeed in improving the economic situation in the country.

In the new political landscape, heading towards bipolarization rather than pluralism, some people try to figure a “third way”. The Popular front, a coalition of leftist parties, has made an honorable score. Its leader, Hamma Hamammi, got a third place with 7,82% of the voices and 15 seats in the people’s Assembly. One of the few opponents to Ben Ali who remained in Tunisia, he calls for a radical change in the development model and a new economic order based on social justice.

Even though his power has been reduced, the president will have a more important legitimacy, and the electors expect a lot from him. He will have to deal with the several national security issues, especially with the increasing of salafist groups in Libya, and put an end to the ongoing economic crisis. More generally, the political class will have to answer the expectations of the youth, which has been the major actor of the revolution but abstained massively during the two elections.

Towards a national unity government

Even considering Caid Essebsi’s victory, his party, Nidaa Tounes, won’t have the majority necessary to rule alone at the people’s Assembly and it will need to find allies. He didn’t exclude an alliance with the Islamists. Ennahda chose not to present any candidate for the presidential election and was the most obvious missing part. Did the leaders think that, being in second position after the legislatives, there was enough certitude of being irreplaceable in any alliance to form a future government?

Whoever the victor will be, he will have to cope with the Islamists, which is enough to make Ennahda’s leaders satisfied. The choice of their electors, as well as the Popular front’s, will determine the result of the election. We can only hope that the rising tensions between the two rounds, or the deterioration of the security environment, won’t threat again the fragile democratization process of the country.

Sources :

  • Bozonnet Charlotte , « En Tunisie, une élection présidentielle à forte portée symbolique », Le Monde, 23 novembre 2014
  • Bozonnet Charlotte, « Béji contre Marzouki : duel tendu pour le second tour de la présidentielle tunisienne », Le Monde, 24 novembre 2014
  • CHOUIKHA Larbi, « En Tunisie, la peur d’un parlement ingouvernable », Orient xxi, 6 octobre 2014
  • CHOUIKHA Larbi, MOHSEN-FINAN Khadija, « Bipolarisation présidentielle en Tunisie, un risque pour la démocratie », Orient xxi, 26 novembre 2014
  • MOHSEN-FINAN Khadija, « La Tunisie entre alternance et gouvernement d’union nationale », Orient xxi, 29 octobre 2014
  • Séréni Jean-Pierre, « La révolution s’institutionnalise en Tunisie », Orient xxi, 15 septembre 2014
  • Vidéo – Tunisie : « Les électeurs ont eu l’impression de vivre un moment spécial dans l’histoire du pays », Le Monde, 24 novembre 2014
  • Vidéo – Election en Tunisie : « Une partie des Tunisiens a voté utile », Le Monde, 29 octobre 2014