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Far from perfect, but Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is crystallising Open in fullscreen

Yasmine Ryan

Far from perfect, but Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is crystallising

Essebsi supporters chanted 'leave' at Marzouki as the incumbent voted (Anadolu)

Date of publication: 25 November, 2014

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The days when the interior ministry oversaw elections and Ben Ali was known as Mr 99 percent are long gone. But presidential elections also saw a sharpening of political rhetoric.

The first round of Tunisia’s presidential election may have been widely hailed as a success, but it has been characterized by a sharpening of political discourse and fears of a return of Tunisia’s old guard.

For most of 2014, since the passing of the constitution in January and the appointment of Mehdi Joumaa’s technocrat government, there has been something of a ceasefire between the various players on Tunisia’s political scene.

Yet as Beji Caid Essebsi and Moncef Marzouki emerge from the first round of the presidential election to compete again in December, the rhetoric from both sides is intensifying.

     The past is still fresh in many people’s minds, not least Marzouki’s.


Tunisia’s political landscape has been through a series of seismic changes, and no political movement or politician has come through unscathed. But in last month’s legislative and this past Sunday’s presidential elections, the Tunisian people have pronounced their judgement on the leading actors of the transitional period.

That judgement has proven an overwhelming victory for Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes Party. Nidaa Tounes emerged as the biggest party in parliamentary elections beating the moderate Islamist Ennahdha into second. And with 39.44 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential election, Essebsi will be favourite to beat incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, who secured 33.43 percent in a second round of voting.

The leftist candidate, Hamma Hammami, came third with 7.82 percent.

It has been a long road for Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. In February 2011, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD by its French acronym), the ruling party whose name had become synonymous with the oppression of ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s police state and with rampant corruption, was dissolved.

This left a gaping political vacuum in the country that meant Destourians, the broad secularist-conservative political movement that had dominated politics since independence, felt under-represented after the 2011 election for the constituent assembly. The virulent, visceral rejection of the constituent assembly by many commentators can, to some degree, be attributed to the fact that they didn’t feel it represented "their" Tunisia.

Return of the old?

For these Tunisians, Essebsi’s campaign marked the first time since Ben Ali’s ouster that they felt they had a political voice. Outside Essebsi’s November 16 rally in Tunis, I sat next to a man in tears, sobbing as he watched the crowds coming to support “Baba Beji”.

On the campaign trail with a top Nidaa Tounes candidate for the legislative elections, a member of his campaign team, a former member of the RCD, told me how he had suffered from depression since 2011 and it was only now he felt confident enough to come off medication.

Few Tunisians could be expected to have much sympathy for people linked with the old regime, but it is hard to understate the significance of such palpable signs of relief.

And though many condemn Nidaa Tounes as a vehicle that could open the way for the return of the old regime, the reality is much more complicated.

Since his time as interim Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2011 constituent assembly, Essebsi distinguished himself as a Destourian, but also as a reformist. And Nidaa Tounes is a broad alliance, including at least four main currents. While there is a strong presence of people closely associated with the former RCD, figures such as Mohsin Marzouk and Taïeb Baccouche belong firmly in the centre-left reformist camp.

What is clear is that Tunisians didn’t vote for a return of hardline old school Destourians – the several candidates who had been closely allied with Ben Ali didn’t fare well. Rather, they voted for the reformist current as embodied by Essebsi. Whether such a broad alliance is sustainable is one of the biggest question marks at this juncture of Tunisian politics.

For all the controversy over his presidency, Moncef Marzouki has proven himself to be a political survivor. He has seemingly overcome the decimation of his Congress for the Republic (CPR) party in last month’s parliamentary election.

The CPR was elected on a centre-left, anti-old regime platform in the October 2011, winning 29 out of 217 seats in the constituent assembly. Yet its controversial alliance with Ennahdha saw it severely punished at last month’s polls, and its very survival is now in doubt.

Not so for Marzouki, who came in just a few points behind Essebsi. Officially, Ennahdha chose not to formally endorse any candidate, asking their members to vote according to their conscience. Yet Marzouki’s alliance with Ennahdha undoubtedly won him the support of many Islamist voters, who see him as a trustworthy opponent of the Destourians and their secular leftist allies.

With Nidaa Tounes outnumbering Ennahdha MPs in parliament, Ennahdha is fearful of losing too much ground. And the decision not to formally support Marzouki is viewed as a cautious attempt not to enter into direct conflict with Essebsi.

Win or win

Young Tunisians discuss elections. The youth vote largely went to Hammami (AFP)

 

Yet Marzouki's appeal cannot be reduced to the simplistic "Islamist-secularist" divide. It is also rooted in Tunisia's historic regional divide. Tunisia's political elite has long been dominated by politicians from the Sahel region, and Marzouki is the first politician from the more conservative, more traditional south.

Indeed, Marzouki came first in all the main southern electorates, Sfax, Mednine, Tataouine, Gafsa, Gabes and Kibili.

Marzouki’s campaign slogan, “We win… or we win”, is meanwhile being interpreted by his political rivals as vaguely menacing.

Essebsi has himself accused Marzouki of being backed purely by Islamists, Salafist-Jihadists and the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution.

And indeed, Imed Dghij, former head of the Kram branch controversial (and now illegal) Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, has been campaigning for Marzouki, even promising a "blood bath" if Essebsi should win.

Yet there are menaces on both sides: on election day, Marzouki was temporarily prevented from voting by Nidaa Tounes supporters shouting “degage” - leave.

It was for the act of daring to attempt to run against Ben Ali that Marzouki was jailed in 1994, and subsequently forced into exile. That past is still fresh in many people’s minds, not least Marzouki’s.

Outside the Big Two, the campaign of leftist candidate Hamma Hammami has solidified the left as a key player in Tunisian politics. Hammami’s Popular Front is the third largest party in the new parliament, and Hammami came third out of 27 candidates.

His campaign slogan, “Son of the People”, also struck a chord with many, and he appears to have done especially well in the youth demographic. The campaign came across as professional and well-organised, but also sincere.

With his communist leaning and history as a political outlaw during the Ben Ali years, Hammami and the Popular Front in general have far outpaced more centrist leftist candidates such as Ahmed Nejib Chebbi. This gives his movement added legitimacy to play the role of vocal opposition in the parliament – assuming the Popular Front doesn’t join a Nidaa Tounes-led coalition.

Tunisia's democracy is still crystallizing. It is far from perfect, but it is a dramatic break with the country's authoritarian past. The days when the interior ministry oversaw elections and Ben Ali was known as Mr 99 percent are long gone.

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