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Middle East and Africa

Tunisian Earthquake: the First Electoral Defeat of an Islamist Party

The defeat of the Islamist party an-Nahda – which had won the elections of 2011 – at the first Tunisian elections after the implementation of the new Constitution, and the victory of the secular and variegated Nidaa Tunis, sent some interesting signals about the processes that are underway in the Mediterranean. The comments of the Tunisian political scientist Hamadi Redissi.

Interview with Hamadi Redissi, Professor of Political Science at the University of Tunis.



The political party Nidaa Tounis with 85 seats won the first legislative elections in Tunisia after the implementation of the new Constitution. But the real new development in the view of Hamadi Redissi was the defeat of an-Nahda. For this political scientist, formerly the president of the Tunisian Observatory on the Democratic Transition who entered the fray openly in favour of the party that was born two years ago and is led by Essebsi, this is the first time that an Islamist party has been defeated at the ballot box. And he is talking about the whole of the Mediterranean area.



‘The first real news is that an-Nahda has lost. And this is relevant because of the fact that this is the first time that an Islamist party has been defeated at an election. We have witnessed Islamist parties in power, in prison, as the supporters of terrorist groups. But this is the first time that an Islamist party has lost an election. This is very important. An example of this? The Turkish Islamist party, the AKP, has not lost a general election in Turkey since 2002. So what has happened in Tunisia is very important. The an-Nahda Party has lost (it only won 26%) but it has not been humiliated. Nidaa Tunis, although it was the first party, also finds itself in a situation that is more difficult than the one that an-Nahda faced in 2011 because it does not have an absolute majority. At that time an-Nahda, with its two allied parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakattol, had an absolute majority and could thus govern’.



What alliances are possible for Nidaa Tunes?



‘The situation is not very clear. Nidaa Tunis does not have the possibility of forming easy alliances with other movements. Even with those that are nearest to it, it does not obtain 50% of the seats. After an electoral campaign completely based on positions against Islamism, it cannot now propose forming a government with an-Nahda. Their political projects are opposed to one another. Even Massar, the former Communist Party, has disappeared – it did not obtain any seats at all. The liberal Afek Tunes Party has only eight seats. Nidaa Tunis with 85 of the 217 seats in the assembly will encounter difficulties in achieving a majority. The extreme Left does not offer any points in common with its programme. Perhaps we will have a government of national unity or public health. It will be difficult for a government to obtain a vote of confidence in parliament. In addition, we are blocked for institutional reasons. According to the new Constitution, it is the President of the Republic who must invite the Prime Minister to form a government. But the current President of the Republic belonged to a provisional arrangement which had to lead the country to elections. Therefore we face an impasse until the presidential elections, that is to say for a couple of months’.



How do you interpret this election? What do the decline in turnout and the result tell us about Tunisian society?



‘First of all it should be stressed that turnout was not very high: it reached 60% of those registered to vote. A little more than three million people voted out of the five million who are on the electoral rolls. In 2011 4.3 million people voted. However, it is already a good thing that they went to vote. Otherwise, the vote at the election was the result of three years of government during which the Troika did not keep the social and economic promises that it had made. It spoke about an increase in the number of jobs but unemployment has increased; it frightened the middle classes with its attempt to Islamise the country and with its tendency to establish an authoritarian power. The result of the election was a heavy judgement on the Troika. An-Nahda is not finished but certainly it has endured a very hard blow. On the other hand, a party was rewarded which is a synthesis of the old and the new, of trade unionists, men of the Left, independents, representatives of business…in voting for this party, whose leader Essebsi worked with Bourguiba is a candidate at the presidential elections, the electors gave a clear signal of the direction that they want the country to take’.



Nostalgia for the secular or pre-revolutionary past?



‘One should take into consideration that there are four or five parties that hark back to the epoch of Ben Ali but people did not vote for them. The most important, Al Maoubadara of Kamel Morjane, a former Minister of Ben Ali, obtained only four seats, less than it won in 2011, when it gained five’.



Tunisia is under special international scrutiny. It is observed to understand how the transition which began with the revolt of 2011 is evolving. In your view, what signals have these elections given to the world?



‘The first signal is that the democratic pathway can also be followed in an Arab country. You need time and patience, but it is possible. Another message is that you need a strong civil society to contain the tendency of the Islamists to impose a dictatorial state, a religious state. In addition, it is evident that you need immediate economic measures to bring the country out of the economic crisis in which it finds itself. Democracy participates in the economic stability of a country. Personally I believe that Tunisia is on the right road’.