Tunisia’s leading Islamist party has claimed victory in the country’s first free election, but appears poised to form a national unity coalition with two rival secular parties.
“The first confirmed results show that Ennahda has obtained first place,” campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said.
While official results from Sunday’s poll have not been released, Ennahda based its projections on figures that party workers collated from results posted at individual polling stations.
“It doesn’t look like any party is going to be over about 35 to 40%,” said Ambassador Richard Williamson, an election monitor with the International Republican Institute. “Coalitions will be necessary.”
Attention will now shift to the likely composition and performance of the country’s first democratically-elected government.
“Most people believe this has been an inspiring election,” said Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. “It remains to be seen what comes next. Democracy was seen yesterday, now it is important that the political parties reflect the will and spirit of the people.”
NDI and IRI were among several democracy assistance groups to monitor the election while taking pains to emphasize that Tunisia’s transition is home-grown. Indeed, Tunisian activists are now promoting “democratic learning” with other Arab democrats.
“No one is claiming to be teaching other Arabs democracy,” writes Larbi Sadiki, author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy. “To the contrary, young representatives of the country’s EU trained and funded first electoral observation NGO, Muraqiboun, say they are happy to cooperate with Libyans and Egyptians to consolidate democratic learning.”
Analysts and activists alike had anticipated that a broad-based national unity government was the most likely and desirable scenario to ensure stability and ease market anxieties.
“The Islamists, when we met with them, told us that they have no intention of governing alone even if they win a majority of the vote — that they are looking for a coalition,” said former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher, a member of the NDI observation mission, told The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Dickinson.
But forming an inclusive coalition will require compromise and accommodation of opposing interests – and approach that has been in short supply during a polarized election campaign.
Latest reports suggest that the Islamist party will propose a coalition interim government with some of its secular rivals.
“We in Ennahda are prepared to make an alliance with Moncef Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic and [Mustafa] Ben Jaafar’s Ettakatol, given they are not far from us in their views and also that these two parties had a large share of the vote,” said Ali Larayd, a member of Ennahda’s executive committee.
The result is a major triumph for Rachid Ghannouchi (above), the party’s leader, who is widely credited with modernizing the group’s creed by insisting on the compatibility of Islam and democracy. More recently, he has argued that Ennahda’s participation in Tunisian governance is the only solution to the violent Islamist radicalism evident in recent attacks on secular figures and institutions, including the firebombing of a TV executive’s home.
Some secular groups appear inclined to give Ennahda the benefit of the doubt, confident that Tunisians’ civil society and secular forces are strong enough to counter any Islamist agenda.
“The diversity and openness of civil secular society in Tunisia is strong and isn’t going to change,” said Kais Nigrou, of the Modernist Democratic Pole, a center-left coalition. “We don’t see a threat from Islamists. If 40% voted for Islamists, 60% of society did not.”
The leader of Tunisia’s centre-left Progressive Democratic Party, trailing in second place, conceded defeat as votes were still being tallied.
“The trend is clear. The PDP is badly placed. It is the decision of the Tunisian people. I bow before their choice,” PDP leader Maya Jribi (left), the only female party leader, told Reuters. “We will be there to defend a modern, prosperous and moderate Tunisia,” she said, while congratulating “those who obtained the approval of the Tunisian people.”
“We are in a democracy, and minorities will play the role of the opposition and we will play this role,” said Jribi, the secretary general of the party. “We will ask the assembly to apply the demands of Tunisians. We will play a role in the writing of the constitution and ensure it will have a separation of religion and state.”
Many observers attribute the Islamists’ victory to secular parties’ failure to develop a coherent platform and to Ennahda’s superior organization, drawing on mosque-based networks covertly cultivated during decades of repression.
“Normally, Ennahdha would not get more than 20 percent of the vote but the weakness of the electoral campaigns of some parties may make it reap the majority,” said Mohsen Marzouk, secretary general of the Arab Democracy Foundation.
The party has also gained support and legitimacy by blending its religious message with social welfare, focusing on needs as well as rights while liberal political forces are preoccupied with constitutional issues.
“Islamists have the benefit of a simple message to win votes, namely that they are following the true path of Islam with its promise of social justice,” the Financial Times’ Roula Khalaf noted:
But it is their ability to organize and relate with populations in need that also gives them a political edge. Talk to people in impoverished neighborhoods in Cairo and they will tell how the Brotherhood set up stands outside schools to sell notebooks at low prices, and fruit stalls during the holy month of Ramadan that offered dates at a fraction of the market price. Liberal parties are not mentioned because, unlike the Islamists, they lack an infrastructure of charities.”
“This victory shows that it is possible for a non-radical, Islamist party to win an election,” said Sofiane Ben Salah, an independent Tunisian analyst. “This is the first time this has happened in the Arab world.”
Many analysts believe a cross-party national unity government is both likely and necessary to reduce the polarizing conflicts between secular and Islamist forces that characterized the election campaign.
“The scene today reflects the polarization between the so- called modern and democratic forces on one side and Islamic and religious ones on another,” said Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor at Tunis University. “This and the proportional representation system will likely mean that no one group will dominate the assembly, opening the door for forging coalitions.”
The focus of attention will now shift to gauging whether the new government’s policies and actions will deliver personal and economic security by addressing the socio-economic grievances that drove Tunisia’s revolution.
A majority of Tunisians believe that the new government’s priorities should be “reducing bribery and corruption in government” and “managing the Tunisian economy well” (around 73 percent each), according to a previously unpublished survey by Princeton-based Pechter Polls. Two other priorities – providing economic benefits to “ordinary Tunisians” and protecting citizens against official abuse — ranked nearly as high (64 and 60 percent, respectively), notes David Pollock, the Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“People are worried about the security situation and everyone is waiting to see what will happen in the week after the elections,” said Bilel Ben Dhifallah, an economics lecturer at Tunis University. “There’s a relative state of fear but if things go smoothly, the Tunisian economy can take off.”
The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were “not driven by religion or Islamists, but by longstanding political and economic issues and grievances,” writes John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University:
The uprisings revealed a broad-based inclusive movement, not led by a single individual or driven by a single secular or religious ideology that demanded an end to dictatorship, repression, rampant corruption, and the lack of dignity, opportunity and a sense of a future that many young people experienced. Many challenges remain that will require a national political effort and coalition that cuts across political and ideological grounds.
“The biggest challenge now is that if the parties start arguing over the country’s Islamic identity or whether women who wear headscarves should or should not be allowed into state-building, we might not get clear, professional and determined policy on the economy,” said a Tunis-based diplomat.
The government’s political trajectory and the priority afforded to socio-economic as opposed to cultural issues may rest on Ettakatol, a small secular party which may wield disproportionate influence.
“Our priority is social justice,” an Ettakatol spokesman said, while “the Islamists’ [Ennahda] priority is culture.”
If Ettakatol binds with secular groups, they could challenge Ennahda’s hegemony – or even overtake it. But if Ettakatol sides with the Islamist party, Ennahda’s dominance – and its role in crafting the identity of Tunisia’s democracy – will be sealed.
The election results will have an impact well beyond Tunisia’s borders, observers suggest.
Democracy activists across the region hope that a successful vote here could galvanize pro-democracy movements that have flagged amid violent regime crackdowns, as in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, and by a pushback by old-guard counterrevolutionary forces, as in Egypt.
“People start to look and say, ‘See, they have democracy—why can’t I?’ Or they say, ‘That looks chaotic—I don’t want that,’” says Thomas Garrett, a vice president with the International Republican Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. “A lot of people have said for years that you can’t have democracy in any Arab country. If it succeeds here, it will stand as a role model.”
Tunisia’s election should set a precedent for other transitions from authoritarian rule across the region, said Jane Harman, a former U.S. congresswoman who now heads the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
“Tunisia has set a marker here, a marker for what you do from a standing start — they had nothing going on here except two decades of autocratic, corrupt rule (until) nine months ago,” she said.
The election was a victory for dignity and freedom, said the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation sparked Tunisia’s revolt and the wider Arab Spring.
“I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice,” Manoubia Bouazizi told Reuters.
Some observers believe that Ennahda’s victory may boost the fortunes the hand of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists elsewhere in the region, but much will depend on whether the party adopts an inclusive approach.
“Any victory of … (Ennahda) would help the Brotherhood as the voice of liberal and moderate Islamists in Egypt,” said Khalil al-Anani, an analyst at the UK’s Durham University.
“I think if the Islamists won in Tunisia, this will push Islamists in Egypt to calm down fears and seek to build alliances and coalitions with secular and liberal forces. It will give the Brotherhood a kind of emotional power to go forward,” he said.
The Islamists’ victory will ensure they are the leading force in drafting the country’s new constitution, but observers believe it will seek to fashion a political settlement based on the Turkish model of reconciling Islam and democracy rather than an Iranian-style Islamic Republic.
“Every party is basically trying to see to what extent they can compromise with al-Nahda to organize a government,” Zied Mhirsi, a prominent Tunisian blogger, told al-Jazeera. “I don’t expect our revolution to become an Islamic Revolution but, at the same time, I expect Islam to be a part of Tunisian life, the way you could see it in Turkey.”
Ennahda is committed to a Turkish-style civil state, Ghannouchi recently told the Sousse Business Forum. “Building a democratic system is a goal in itself,” he said, rejecting suggestions that Ennahda had an instrumental “one vote-one person-one time” approach to democracy as a means for securing power and imposing Islamic law.
But Ghannouchi has also stated that the Quran and Sunna represent the “ultimate law” and Azzam Tamimi, his biographer and close confidante, does not rule out the possibility of shariah law.
“It is up to the people to decide,” said Tamimi. “That’s a choice that has to be respected, and I’m sure that al-Nahda movement would want to see a system of law and a system of governance that is in full compatibility with Islam.”
But whatever Ghannouchi’s personal convictions, his party is struggling to reconcile conflicting ideological imperatives that expose it to accusations of practicing a double discourse, says Jourchi Salah, editor of Amouharrer, an independent daily.
“There’s a chasm between the national leaders and the party base,” he argues. “While the national leaders like Ghannouchi have a political discourse, some important regional figures have a more religious discourse.”
The internal balance of factional forces will be exposed at the party’s party congress in January, he says. “We’ll see then who is the real winner, and who is the loser,” says Salah.
But the new government will need to prioritize economic performance over ideological or cultural preoccupations if it is to secure a fresh mandate under the new constitution.
“Far from creating the jobs protesters were demanding in January, the revolution is likely to have led to a rise in unemployment,” said Liz Martins, a Dubai-based senior economist with HSBC bank. “There will be pressure on the assembly to be seen to be doing something.”
Some Tunisians expect “an almost magical transformation,” The New York Times reports:
There is going to be social justice, freedom, democracy, and they are going to tackle the unemployment issue,” Mohamed Fezai, a jobless 30-year-old college graduate, declared confidently.
Observers fear that if Tunisia’s new government fails to deliver the jobs and services needed to meet the population’s arguably inflated expectations, a Russian scenario may result in which democracy itself may become tarnished by association with economic instability and personal insecurity.
“In 2012, we really have to get back into growth,” says Bechir Bouraoui, president of the Generation Tunisie Libre foundation, which works with unemployed youth. “There are lots of young people who are lost. They see that their regions are not developing well. They see that there are three, four, or five members of their family who are all jobless.”
Some observers fear that if Tunisia’s new government fails to deliver the jobs and services needed to meet the population’s arguably inflated expectations, a Russian scenario may result in which democracy itself may become tarnished by association with economic instability and personal insecurity.
“2011 is to the Arabs what 1989 was to the communist world,” writes Hoover Institution senior fellow Fouad Ajami. “The Arabs are now coming into ownership of their own history and we have to celebrate.”
But some analysts fear that the region’s transitions could yet take an illiberal turn in the absence of the assistance and incentives that helped consolidate democracy in post-Soviet central and eastern Europe.
A majority of Tunisians (58 percent) hold a very negative opinion of the United States, writes Pollock, the Washington Institute analyst. But the US “can do to earn more friends in Tunisia and help the country set an example of functioning democracy for the region,” he argues:
In particular, upgrading Tunisia from a “threshold” to a “compact” partner when issuing Millennium Challenge Account credits would be an excellent investment in regional stability as the Arab Spring turns to autumn. A free trade agreement would make sense as well. As long as Tunisia’s new ruling parties stay as moderate in power as they sound on the campaign trail, this fledgling Arab democracy merits determined American support.