Tunisian by-election upset could signal trouble for ruling elite

Populist groups have sought to capitalise on the people’s frustrations in the country.
December 24, 2017

Tunis- The surprise victory of a po­litical outsider in Tunisia’s parliamentary by-elections alarmed the country’s rul­ing parties and signalled popular disapproval of the governing elite.

Yassine Ayari, a controversial blogger and activist with alleged extremist affinities, defeated 25 other candidates for a seat in the Tunisian Assembly. The election, overseas for Tunisian expatriates in Germany, at­tracted little interest among eligible voters; only 5% of the 26,000 regis­tered voted.

The outcome was a blow to Tuni­sia’s main ruling parties, the secu­larist Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahda and indicated growing disillusionment with mainstream politics. It coincided with the an­niversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2011 set off the events that toppled the au­thoritarian regime of former ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the “Arab spring” uprisings.

Ayari, a self-declared independ­ent candidate, is a divisive figure whose sympathies for radical Islam have been under scrutiny. Follow­ing the revolution, he was criticised for posting a picture with a black flag associated with Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical Salafist groups. After the vote, Ayari said his loyalties were with former President Moncef Mar­zouki, who has been trying to make a comeback on the political scene.

Ayari, himself, was astounded by his win. “I beat Ennahda, Nidaa, Democratic Current, Al Joumhouri, the Popular Front and Machrou Tounes parties,” Ayari wrote on his blog. “I do not understand how I pulled this victory.”

Most analysts see the vote as a con­firmation of the lingering distrust by voters, especially younger ones, of the political class. Indicators show the distrust translating to indiffer­ence to elections but the rate of par­ticipation in Germany’s by-election takes that level of indifference to an unprecedented low.

The election results seem also to widen suspicions between Nidaa Tounes and its Islamists coalition partners. Some Ennahda figures blamed the defeat on the disillusion­ment of the Islamist grass-roots sup­porters about their party’s coalition with Nidaa Tounes, which is per­ceived by many Islamists as increas­ingly critical of their party.

Asked about Ayari’s surprise vic­tory, Mohamed Ben Salem, a leading member of Ennahda, reiterated that “Ennahda’s leadership expressed support for Nidaa’s candidate” but that “Ennahda’s voters are free in their choices when Ennahda is not fielding its own candidate.”

“It is not the fault of Ennahda’s voters if Nidaa (Tounes) lost the vote,” Ben Salem added.

Others in the secularist party blamed Ennahda for being “two-faced,” saying the party’s official stance is often at odds with some members.

“Many voices inside Nidaa (Tounes) believe the party’s relation­ship with Ennahda damages the rep­utation of Nidaa, its agenda and its appeal. That explains the outcome of the election,” said Nidaa Tounes spokesman Borhane Bessaies.

In an official statement, Nidaa Tounes said it would “undertake the courageous and necessary decisions regarding its relationship with some of the political parties” at a meeting of its top leaders.

Some analysts contended, how­ever, that there is a dangerously radical Islamist subcurrent that car­ries certain appeal with disgruntled segments of the population and that does not bode well for the country’s political stability. They argued that the organisation remains a conserva­tive Islamist group that is incompat­ible with a pluralistic democracy.

“Until there is evidence to the con­trary, Ennahda’s voters will always remain obscurantist until we force them by law to respect democracy,” said former diplomat Farhat Othman in an opinion piece.

Ennahda previously worked with Marzouki, who served as president from 2011-14 and is now with the Harak al Iradaa (Movement of Good­will).

“Ayari’s victory is a great victory for the revolutionary forces in the an­niversary of the uprising of Decem­ber 17. It signals changes in the future in the political landscape in Tunisia,” Harak MP Imed Daimi said.

Populist groups such as Harak have sought to capitalise on the people’s frustrations in the country, which is struggling to rebound from years of economic hardship.

A December survey by Sigma poll­ing company said that more than 80% of Tunisians respondents said they were unhappy with the coun­try’s economic and social situation. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their families’ financial circum­stances were getting worse.

The by-election triggered alarm with the political class about the risk that disillusioned voters would shun municipal elections scheduled for next May and the general elections planned for 2019.