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Setback for Tunisia’s Islamists portends a partisan political turn

Analysis: Grievances that fueled the revolution drove Tunisians to the polls, where they produced a political surprise

Official results of Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on Thursday shocked analysts when Nidaa Tounes, an amalgam of former regime figures and secular leftists, defeated the Islamist Ennahda party that has governed since October 2011.

The surprise setback for Ennahda, whose superior organization and stable electoral base had led many to predict it would once again prevail in Sunday's election, reflects disappointment since the 2011 ouster of former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Unlike Egypt’s traumatic lurch from Islamist rulers to a government representing many of the forces of the older order, Tunisia’s government changing hands at the ballot box is evidence of progress in its transition to democracy. But the democratic vision that triumphed among a cross section of Tunisia’s political forces following the toppling of Ben Ali is coming under increasing pressure from partisan politics.

Nidaa Tounes’s strong performance — winning a plurality in the legislature, with 85 of the 217 seats — confounded expectations based on the previous election. In 2011, Ennahda triumphed over secular parties that had shied away from forming a larger coalition capable of challenging the Islamists. The anti-Ennahda vote was scattered across disparate parties focused more on discrediting Ennahda’s ideology than on offering alternative policy platforms.

The uprising against Ben Ali had been neither religious nor secular; instead, it denounced corruption, cronyism, repression and regional disparities. Ennahda was given a chance to rectify those problems, particularly the persistent unemployment that deprived so many young Tunisians of hope and dignity — but in the minds of many voters, once in government, the party failed to deliver. Unemployment remains high and the security climate has grown more precarious amid regional turmoil.

But even if public confidence in institutions waned during the first two years of the transition, Sunday’s impressive voter turnout — nearly 70 percent — indicates that popular fervor for political change has not completely lost momentum.

In the months before the elections, some politicians said they hoped that the polarization between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda that has prevailed since 2012 would create space for coalition politics that would force compromise.

During an interview in June, Salma Mabrouk of the leftist Al Massar party doubted that Nidaa Tounes would ally with small parties like her own: “We have common points, but when they see their popularity in the polls, they don’t have any interest in cooperating.”

Chawki Gaddes, secretary-general of the Tunisian Association of Constitutional Law, echoed Mabrouk’s sentiment. “The conditions just aren’t there for coalitional politics,” he said, “so the scene remains balkanized.”

The distribution of seats from Sunday’s vote — 85 to Nidaa, 70 to Ennahda and a smattering to other parties — confirms Mabrouk’s and Gaddes’s predictions that bipolarity would endure. But the fact that the plurality has shifted from Ennahda to Nidaa reflects a changing mood in the electorate and will shape partisan strategy — particularly Ennahda’s — during next month’s presidential elections.

Nidaa Tounes benefited from Ennahda’s failure to address the social ills while in power. But it also succeeded in attracting a community of independent intellectual elites, jurists and human rights activists fundamentally opposed to Islamist governance, making the party the center of gravity for those seeking to oust Ennahda even if they might not identify entirely with Nidaa Tounes’s platform.

The constellation of secular parties that divided the secularist vote in 2011 had faded into insignificance, and Nidaa Tounes campaigned to court those who had voted for smaller parties, urging Tunisians to cast a “useful vote.”

That logic saw many liberals who had voted for smaller parties in 2011 now back Nidaa Tounes as the party that could unseat Ennahda, even if it included key figures from the Ben Ali regime they had worked to overthrow.

But Nidaa Tounes also capitalized on Ennahda’s waning credibility — tarnished by its poor governance, its failure to restore the economy and latent suspicions of its involvement in the two political assassinations that rocked the country in 2013.

The shift from Ennahda to Nidaa Tounes, too quickly characterized as a swing from religious to secular, does not necessarily indicate democratic progress, either.

Tunisia’s political sphere remains polarized. After the results were announced, 87-year-old party leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, made clear that his party would not ally with Ennahda. And while Nidaa Tounes remains opposed to coalition-building, the distribution of seats in parliament may force it to seek allies once in power.

Nidaa Tounes’s attitude contrasts with Ennahda’s following the 2011 election, when it offered to form a unity government. After exit polls were announced on Monday, Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun immediately told Reuters that the party accepted the results and congratulated Nidaa Tounes.

Nidaa Tounes may face some problems of its own. It has been criticized for its opaque internal structure and alleged paternalistic tendencies. Its disparate members, some of whom were more than just cogs in Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, are bound exclusively by their opposition to Islamism. Governance will bring more complex challenges.

Ennahda, for its part, will face the prospect of the potential reemergence of Ben Ali’s networks and a potential Nidaa Tounes monopoly over ministerial posts. The Islamist party has already declared that it would not field a candidate in November, but now faces the choice to either back a candidate from a small party to mitigate Nidaa Tounes’s political control or be forced to collaborate with Nidaa.

Its political strategy is likely to be centered on countering Nidaa, mirroring Nidaa Tounes’s own electoral strategy and exacerbating partisan politics that could hamper the democratic momentum.

The election results suggest a citizenry still frustrated by the social conditions in Tunisia and looking for a political leadership capable of tackling them. Less clear is whether Tunisia’s political class is willing to subordinate partisan interests in order to meet that challenge.

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