Despite secularists' retreat, Ennahda to face tough task forming coalition

The prospect of political instability looms even if a coalition government is formed within legal deadlines.
Tuesday 08/10/2019
Members of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections count the ballots at a vote counting station after the parliamentary election. (dpa)
Reading the figures. Members of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for Elections count the ballots at a vote counting station after the parliamentary election. (dpa)

TUNIS - The Islamist Ennahda Movement won a plurality of votes in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, two exit polls indicated, while its main rival’s leader remains in jail and traditional secularist opponents faded into political irrelevance after dismal showings at the ballot box.

Ennahda's won first place in the legislative race but only with about 17% of the vote. With the projected 40 seats in the 217-seat assembly, the party would like to position itself as the power broker for the next five years amid a splintered parliamentary landscape and the surge of independent slates. But it will have at its disposal, only a thin margin of manoeuvre in the parliament and in coalition building.

The party would like to use its declaration of victory to cement its own ranks as the performance of the Islamist party in the parliamentary vote October 6 revealed a drastic shrinking of its voter base during the last eight years.

During the 2011 vote for the Constituent Assembly, Ennahda received 37% of the votes and won 89 seats. During the 2014 legislative elections, it won 27.8% of the votes and 69 seats.

Ennahda's leaders were already reported in discussions over government formation and selection of the prime minister.

However, two seemingly natural Ennahda allies remained unlikely to join the government.

The pan-Arabist People's Movement pledged to stay out of any coalition government, while the Democratic Current party demanded key ministerial positions in order to partner with Ennahda. 

Ennahda would also face a tough task convincing Tahya Tounes, the party of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, to join it in any coalition government.

The second biggest group in parliament, Nabil Karoui's Qalb Tounes, which won approximately 15% of the vote, rejected an alliance with Ennahda.

Karoui consistently ruled out joining a coalition with Ennahda but, after the announcement of exit poll results, Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi seemed to be wooing Karoui, saying: "He would not be in detention if it was up to me."

Karoui, competing against Saied in the presidential runoff, has been jailed since August 23 on money-laundering and tax-evasion charges

Ennahda might have an easier task convincing the Islamist Al-Karama (Dignity) Coalition to join although Ennahda may have to promise concessions to Seifeddine Makhlouf's ultraconservative agenda. There may be also independent slates with Islamist and "revolutionary" leanings winning to join an Ennahda-led coalition.

The prospect of political instability looms even if a coalition government is formed within legal deadlines, saving the country from early elections.

The splintered parliamentary landscape will make it difficult for any government to tacke the many socioeconomic woes. With parties and independent slates holding a low number of seats each, majorities will be difficult to come by in crucial parliamentary votes on needed reforms. According to Selim Kharrat of Al-Bawsala, a parliamentary watchdog, "It will probably take at least four or five blocs to form a majority -- yet among the leading five, some are sworn enemies," Kharrat told AFP.

"It is a parliament that will be too fragmented to function properly -- we cannot expect much," he added.

Experts have not ruled out a rapprochement of convenience between Qalb Tounes and Ennahda.  They compare that still remote prospect to previous agreements between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.

"In 2014, the polarisation was more acute and the rupture was more clear and strong than now between Qalb Tounes and Ennahda and the discourse during the campaign given to their respective publics what they wanted in all kinds of escalation," said Tarek Kahlaoui, former head of the presidency-run think tank ITES.

"At the end, the [Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes] struck an entente that was in the making more than a year before the elections. History does repeat itself only in a changed form. That’s what will happen this time."

Besides Qalb Tounes, the rest of the modernist camp is in disarray. Nidaa Tounes, the party founded by former President Beji Caid Essebsi in 2012, is projected to win only one seat in the legislature.

Caid Essebsi beat Ennahda in the 2014 elections before taking it in a coalition government on his terms. He died July 25 and his party, which had served as a counterweight to Ennahda, got just 2% of the parliamentary vote.

Bruised by their own fights against each other, modernist leaders do not appear for now to have the organisation nor the vision to form a cohesive block against Ennahdha.

The main anti-Islamist figure is Abir Moussi, Free Destourian Party president. Her party won less than 7% of the vote and is projected to gain 14 seats. Moussi said she would consider "being in a coalition government with everyone except the Brotherhood," in reference to Ennahda. Her presence in the next parliament will not alter the political balance of the forces at play. It is likely, however, to add to the tensions in an assembly where there is not going to be any shortage of shrill voices.

Ennahda has its eyes next set on the presidential runoff scheduled for October 13. "Keep the momentum of mobilisation going forward to elect Kais Saied as president," said Ghannouchi alluding to his party's declared support for the conservative jurist who boasts no party affiliation.

In the meanwhile, Karoui’s supporters allege their leader is a "political prisoner" of Ennahda and Chahed who wish, they say, to shut him out of the elections race.

Karoui formed Qalb Tounes about three months before the parliamentary vote. He has led a charity drive in recent years in remote hamlets and neglected poor urban areas of main cities, canvassing in areas where poverty was most severe.

Karoui owns shares in the popular television channel Nessma, which highlighted his outreach to the poor during which he handed out food, medicine and other aid.

Analysts said the strength of Qalb Tounes, widely dubbed "another Nidaa Tounes" would be tested October 13 over its ability to lure voters to support Karoui's presidential bid.

Karoui's detention could lead to a legal challenge if he loses the runoff. He has complained about "lack of equal opportunity" in the campaign. Despite being in jail he finished second to Saied in the first round of the presidential vote but his requests for release to campaign for the runoff have been denied.