Two steps forward, one back in Tunisia

Results are now official from last weekend’s parliamentary election in Tunisia. (The Electoral Tribunal describes them as “preliminary”, but they represent final counting.) The full version in Arabic is here; here’s the seat summary in French and English, with vote totals available at this blog post.

The results show post-revolutionary Tunisia consolidating its democracy, and indeed consolidating a two-party system. The two largest parties had almost two-thirds of the vote between them: the secular coalition Nidaa Tounes, or “Call of Tunisia”, with 37.6% and 85 of the 217 seats, and the moderate Islamist party Ennahda on 27.8% and 69 seats.

Ennahda has lost the leading position that it won in the country’s first democratic election, in 2011, when it had 37.0%. But it has still preserved significant strength. The biggest losers are the secular parties that had co-operated with it in a coalition government: the Congress for the Republic lost 25 of its 29 seats, and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, or Ettakatol, was reduced from 20 seats to just one.

Evidently secular voters didn’t like the idea of their MPs working with the Islamists. Not surprising, then, that Nidaa Tounes has rejected the idea of a unity government with Ennahda. Most probably it will put together a majority with the aid of some combination of the free-market Free Patriotic Union (4.1% and 16 seats), the left-wing Popular Front (3.6% and 15 seats) and the liberal Afek Tounes (3.0% and nine seats).

Islamists have had a pretty bad press lately, so many will find this result encouraging. But there’s a downside to Nidaa Tounes as well; it includes some elements from the forces loyal to the former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and it seems excessively dependent on its leader, 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi – who will be its candidate in presidential elections later this month.

There are concerns that victory for Essebsi might herald a return to authoritarianism and persecution of Islamists; alternatively that, given his age, Essebsi is unlikely to bring much stability. Monica Marks in the Guardian suggests that “Nidaa Tounes might unravel if Essebsi either fails to be elected in the 26 November presidential vote or dies while Nidaa is in power,” and worries “whether it will be able to overcome its own lack of internal democracy to consolidate Tunisia’s newborn democratic structures.”

But possibly the best interpretation of the result is not as a vote for or against Islamism or secularism, but just the electorate exercising its novel power to change governments – in the same way as the new democracies of eastern Europe routinely did in the decade or so after the fall of communism. When peaceful change of government has been impossible for so long, it’s understandable that people will tend to overdo it once the opportunity finally arrives.

That in turn casts further doubt on the justification for the military coup in Egypt that overthrew its Islamist government in the middle of last year. At the time, Islamism looked like an unstoppable force; the uneducated masses, it was feared, would do their clerics’ bidding and overwhelm liberal democracy. Many supposed liberals put their faith in the military instead, with awful results.

Tunisia shows that, on the contrary, the masses are quite capable of changing their minds and taking the democratic experiment in a different direction. Even if that means flirting again with the authoritarian past.


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