The Arab world is now asking several questions about Tunisia's secular party Nidaa Tounes, which gained the highest number of votes in the country's parliamentary elections held on Sunday.
With preliminary results showing that Nidaa earned about 38 percent of the votes, the most important issue so far is the party's ability to beat its strong Islamist rival, the Ennahda party.
The issue can be understood within the context of each side's political history. The roots of Ennahda date back to the 1970s, while Nidaa, a combination of diverse political forces, was established much more recently, in June 2012.
Essebsi, the leader
I visited Nidaa's headquarters in November 2012. At the time, the party's opponents used to describe it as "nothing but media propaganda." A big picture of Habib Bourguiba, a Tunisian statesman who became the country's first president, dominated a wall inside.
The photo's presence is related to the relationship Nidaa leader Beji Caid Essebsi has with Bourguiba – known as "the father of Tunisians." Essebsi, 88, was an advisor to Bourguiba, and was also appointed as Tunisia's interior minister in 1965. The veteran politician, who wrote a book on Bourguiba as a sign of loyalty, successfully managed to take advantage of the connection after the 2011 uprising which toppled former dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Being appointed as a premier for the post-Ben Ali cabinet in 2011, Essebsi deliberately gave speeches in Tunisian colloquial Arabic, wore sunglasses and walked like Bourguiba. These moves signified his attempts to portray himself as a second Bourguiba – who usually acted in a similar way – as well as another "father" of Tunisian society.
In brief, any attempt to grasp Nidaa's experience has to be seen through Bourguiba as a founding father of the state.
Ennahda was one of the strongest parties participating in Sunday's polls. The party, under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi, secured a majority with 41 percent of seats during the post-Ben Ali constituent assembly elections in 2011. After the elections, Ennahda headed a "troika" coalition government with two secular parties, the CFR and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Party (Ettakatol).
However, political clashes with other parties over Ennahda's perceptions about Islam and the killing of two opposition figures – Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi – pushed the country towards anti-government protests. Ennahda agreed to hand over authority to a transitional government earlier this year in a deal finalised with secular parties and brokered by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT).
But how is that related to Nidaa?
Al-Azhar Al-Ekrimi, a former minister in Essebsi's transitional government in 2011, told me in January 2012 that Essebsi had called all political forces in Tunisia to push for early elections. At that time, according to Al-Ekrimi, the aim was to benefit from public resentment against the Ennahda-led troika and the fear of the establishment of a "religious state."
"Essebsi had apparently ended his temporary, premiership period as a popular man, as the government limited economic losses and restored internal security. Such a conclusion became crystal clear when compared with the troika's performance," said the former minister.
By all means, Nidaa is not ideologically driven due to the background of its members. Nidaa's secretary-general, Al-Tayyeb Al-Bakoush, is a leading figure of the UGTT. The party combines former members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally, secular leftists, progressive liberals and Bourguiba's Destourians.
Also, a group of prominent businessmen, historically close to Ben Ali's regime, have joined Nidaa as well. The absence of a politico-ideological coherence between members of the coalition raises fears of a collapse in case of any disagreements. It is no surprise that Nidaa has not yet held its convention, or elected members to its top positions.
Tunisia's top political force succeeded in overcoming the dilemma of formulating its electoral lists for the parliamentary elections. But due to political balances among its ranks, Nidaa included only two out of 11 candidates who took part in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the country's post-revolution constitution.
Sources from Nidaa estimate the party's membership at 100,000 persons, which is close to that of Ennahda. But it can be hardly assumed that Nidaa enjoys the same organisational capacities as the latter. Being a newly-established entity – in addition to not holding its convention – strongly supports this claim. However, on the one hand, the 2014 legislative elections showed that Nidaa counts on the huge capabilities and political experiences of its personnel, many of whom are ex-statesmen.
Moreover, during its electoral campaign, Nidaa compensated its weak organisational skills – in comparison to those of Ennahda – by marketing itself as an alternative to the Islamist option, constantly arguing that Tunisia is living in a state of polarisation between secularists and Islamists. Nidaa's severe tone did not become tempered, even amid calmer discourse by Ennahda urging for partisan consensus.
Ironically, Nidaa argued that voting for other secular parties would serve Ennahda's interests and allow it to win the polls, form the next government and eventually return to power.
To a great extent, Nidaa's weaknesses indicate that it won the majority of votes in response to a pattern of protest votes directed against Ennahda following its failed experience in office.
This claim can be easily proven when considering the electoral platform of both sides, which typically reveal neoliberal choices over economic policies, the same reason which left the door open for a coalition between them. Hence, to a greater scale than that of the 2011 elections, ordinary mechanisms of elections such as organisational and mobilisation strength were not the decisive factor for voters' preferences.
Rather, elements of candidates' popularity and their connections with their constituencies had more influence over the outcome of the whole process. Essebsi, along with his close circle of Nidaa members, smartly recognised these variables and cautiously chose the heads of their electoral lists.
In a related context, voter turnout was higher in the north than in the south of the country. According to statistical estimates, Nidaa's voting weight lies in Tunisia's eastern coast, while Ennahda relies on its heavy bases in the south.
For youths, who are arguably frustrated with the post-Ben Ali social and economic conditions, many sources said that they didn't vote extensively in the elections. The elderly – whether male or female – had greater tendency for voting due to their fears of Ennahda and the eroding secular nature of the state from Bourguiba's era.