Tunisia's elections: Who's in the running?

Karem Yehia inTunisia, Saturday 25 Oct 2014

Tunisia's imminent parliamentary elections constitute a litmus test of how far — if it all — the political ground has shifted since the 2011 uprisng against Ben Ali

Polling agents watch as a man places his vote at the primary polling station during a simulation exercise one week before the October 26 parliamentary elections in Tunis October 18, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Over five million Tunisian citizens have registered to participate in the country's forthcoming parliamentary elections, more than the number that registered for the country's 2011 elections, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections – ISIE).

However, the scene in Tunis City doesn't give the impression that Tunisia is just hours away from its second legislative elections since the 2011 popular revolt, with the government specifying particular sites for election campaigns posters. The vote will see 1,327 electoral lists in 27 electoral districts contested.

Harder to explain is the relative lack of political discussion among Tunisian citizens.

Candidates & political blocs

Tunisia's awaited elections will end the three-year transitional phase that started after the ouster of president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Ennahda, an Islamist party under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi, secured a majority with 41 percent of seats in the post-Ben Ali constituent assembly elections of the same year.

After the elections, Ennahda headed a "troika" coalition government with two secular parties, President Moncef Al-Marzouki's Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) 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 – have 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 Labor Union (UGTT).

In the meantime, academic and political expert Al-Sadeq Belaid told Ahram Online that predicting the actual turnout is far from easy, and even harder to say how people will vote.

Belaid said that people came to regret their choice of Ennahda in 2011. "But we can't ignore that Ennahda still has a large popular base," Belaid added.

Before moratorium on campaigning began, the Ennahda Party and the rival Neda Tunis ("Call of Tunisia") Party headed by Beiji Caid Essebsi – who served as the head of parliament under president Ben Ali – were both engaged in a flurry of conferences and public events. Most predict that both parties will be in the front lines of the election.

These two aside, the other parties' conferences seemed pale, even the Popular Front headed by leftist Hamma Hamamy, appearing unlikely to put up a strong showing in the elections.

There are four parties that could win third place, and all four are headed by symbols of the Ben Ali regime. They are called the "constitutional parties," in a nod to the Constitutional Democratic Rally, dissolved after Ben Ali's ouster.

The four parties could organise a constitutional alliance in parliament. But Zouhair Hamdy, leader of the Popular Front, said "the Tunisians will not bring Ben Ali's regime back."

"This election is not being contested on political platforms, but on implementing huge projects," Hamdy added. "We are confronting the political Islamist and neoliberal projects with a civil democratic country project that maintains freedom and social justice."

In a same context, Mohamed Ghariani, former secretary general of the Constitutional Democratic Rally Party in the era of Ben Ali, resigned on air from the Nida Tunis Party. In addition, he stepped down as Essebsi's political consultant. Ghariani said he resigned because prevailing culture in the party was undemocratic, and it did not provide a viable political alternative.

Al-Azhar Al-Ekrmy, a leader in Nida Tunis Party, told Ahram Online that Ghariani's resignation would work in the favour of Ennahda, describing him as "the man who served power, from wherever it came."

Ziad Al-Azari, Ennahda's spokesman, said the Islamist party would continue to be Tunisia's "strongest force in parliament."

In interview with Ahram Online, Al-Azari said that Ennahda could secure the same amount of electoral support it garnered in 2011.

"Our conventions are very successful. Also we have roots within the Tunisian people," he asserted.

Al-Azari praised the performance of ISIE, describing it as "generally acceptable." He refuted claims made by Al-Ekrmy against Ennahda and stated, "We will not let such comments spoil the positive atmosphere surrounding the elections."

In Montplaisir district in the capital Tunis, Ennahda's main headquarters looks less attractive than it was before the 2011 elections. Then the building was more prosperous and eye-catching. Nowadays the headquarters is neglected and surrounded by digging operations.

Ennahda & Neda: Possible alliance?

The map of Tunisia's next government remains unclear, but analysts generally do not rule out a possible coalition government between Ennahda and Nida. This potential scenario comes in light of bilateral talks between Ghannouchi and Essebsi months ago under French sponsorship.

Even the platforms of the two blocs, based largely liberal social and economic policies, could be seen as compatible, enhancing the possibility of a joint deal between them. Nevertheless, their ideological differences cannot be ignored.

For some Tunisians, the external element represents a decisive factor in winning these polls. Haad Al-Zeen Emami, a UGTT member, argued that world states are divided about the issue.

She believed that Ennahda is "to an extent" preferred by the Americans, while the French back Nida due to Essebsi's strong connections with Paris.

Moreover, Emami pointed out that she decided not to run for the elections as the process requires "foreign support, partisan support and abundant funds."

A European diplomatic source told Ahram Online that persuading Tunisian politicians to "trust the electoral process was not easy".

Preferring to remain anonymous, the source stated that European countries were constantly in contact with the Tunisian forces throughout all rounds of the national talks.

Ennahda offered an inclusive government during the last weeks which encompasses Nida as well as other parties that include ex-figures of Ben Ali's regime.

Essebsi rejected the offer, though, accusing the Islamist party of threatening the civility and identity of the Tunisian state.
But various informed sources and media reports suggest that he only seeks to improve Nida's "negotiating position" after the elections.

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