The unsurprising results of last week’s parliamentary elections in Tunisia, in which no party gained a majority, could prompt further political instability in the country.
Following its defeat in the first round of Tunisia’s presidential elections, the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party claimed victory in Sunday’s legislative polls with 17.5 per cent of the votes.
The official results are expected on 9 October, but they are unlikely to change the controversial outcome of the vote in which most of the country’s leading parties, none of which scored a majority, refused to enter into parliamentary coalitions.
Exit polls showed that the Qalb Tunis (Heart of Tunisia) Party, founded by jailed TV mogul and presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, came second with 15.6 per cent of the vote.
“The Ennahda Party has secured an indisputable win in the 6 October legislative elections,” party president Rached Al-Ghannouchi said on Sunday. Ennahda, he added, would pursue “a policy of partnership with other parties on the basis of the fight against poverty and combating corruption.”
Qalb Tunis, which also declared its victory, disputing Ennahda’s win, announced its refusal to work with the Islamist Party, accusing it of committing violations during the elections.
Formed only in June by Karoui, who faces charges of tax evasion and money laundering, Qalb Tunis is viewed as a liberal party. Its founder made his name as a populist through his Nessma TV channel, which promotes his charitable activities.
He was previously a member of the secularist Nidaa Tounes Party that won the 2014 legislative elections and formed a parliamentary alliance with Ennahda but has since disintegrated, winning only one seat in this week’s vote.
Tunisia’s 217 MPs are elected through a closed-list proportional representation system using the largest remainder method. The lists are closed, which means voters only choose between lists and not individual candidates.
In order to form a government and choose a prime minister, a coalition of 109 MPs is required. Given the fragmentation of the parliamentary map after the elections, this could prove challenging, however.
The results indicate that Ennahda won 40 seats, Qalb Tunis 33, the Karama (dignity) Coalition 18, the Tahya Tunis Movement of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed 16, Al-Chaab 15, the Free Constitutional Party 14 and the Democratic Current 14.
Conservative Karama Coalition’s Secretary-General Seifeddine Makhlouf said his party was willing to work with Ennahda. Makhlouf, a lawyer, said Karama would not be part of a government with Qalb Tunis or any party involved in charges of corruption.
“We are extending our hands to parties seeking to achieve both the goals of the [2011 Revolution] and prosperity,” he said.
Save for Karama, few are making it easy to partner with Ennahda, however. The Democratic Current Party (14 seats) said it was willing to enter a coalition with Ennahda provided it was given the ministries of justice, interior and administrative reform in a future government.
The Tunisian Elections Commission (ISIE) said the turnout in the elections was 41.3 per cent, well down from the 64 per cent achieved in 2014. The first round of the recent presidential poll achieved a turnout of 49 per cent.
The results are also a setback for Ennahda, which won 28 per cent of the votes in 2014 and Nidaa Tounes which got 38 per cent.
They “show how much more divided the political scene is today and how attractive independents/non-traditional lists are relative to parties,” said the US Carnegie Endowment’s Tunisia expert Sarah Yerkes.
Observers expect an opposition bloc to form consisting of Qalb Tunis with the Free Constitutional Party, while Ennahda could reach an agreement with Karama and the Democratic Current. Both are expected to reach out to independents who have 60 seats among them.
But while both Ennahda and Qalb Tunis remain at odds at this stage, it is possible that the two will be forced into a strategic coalition similar to the 2014 Nedaa Tounes-Ennahda parliamentary alliance.
If the parties have failed to form a government after four months, the president, who will be elected in the second round of the presidential elections next Sunday, has the right to dissolve parliament and call snap elections.
While sometimes hailed as the only democracy in the Arab world, Tunisia has shown in its election results something of its volatile political and economic situation. Last month, the country’s seven million registered voters chose two anti-establishment figures in the presidential election race in a sign of their rejection of the political establishment.
Qais Said, a little-known independent law professor who ran a low-profile campaign, emerged first and will be facing jailed businessman Karoui in the run-offs.
Ennahda, which fielded a candidate in the presidential elections and lost, has announced its support for Said, himself an anti-establishment figure with no political affiliations.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.