Tunisian politics shaken by new poll results, leftist split

Despite the advantage of incumbency, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed saw support for his party, Tahya Tounes, fall from 16.5% in May to 8.6% in June.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Tunisian leader of the Popular Front and general secretary of the Workers’ Party Hamma Hammami (C) attends a meeting in Tunis. (AFP)
Same old squabbles. Tunisian leader of the Popular Front and general secretary of the Workers’ Party Hamma Hammami (C) attends a meeting in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s political class was thrown into unprecedented turmoil following the release of opinion poll results described by commentators as an “earthquake.” The poll indicated that voters were largely dissatisfied with Tunisia’s main political parties, including the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

The poll, conducted by the Sigma Conseil agency and published June 12 by Le Maghreb newspaper, showed Ennahda’s favourability rating declining from 18% in May to 16.8% in June. It was the first time since early 2011 that Ennahda had fallen so sharply in a poll.

However, analysts said Ennahda’s status as an “ideological party with a religious base” could shield it from a growing backlash against major political parties. They said it was uncertain whether the party’s core base would stand at 15% or 10% by the time of the election late this year.

The June poll showed Ennahda trailing a new political entity — known only as the “Karoui Party” — established by television station owner Nabil Karoui. The Sigma Conseil data indicated the Karoui Party would win 29.8% of the vote in parliamentary elections, compared to 16.8% for Ennahda.

Karoui, who owns the influential Nessma media channel and is on friendly terms with Islamist leaders, is widely popular because of his television programmes and direct outreach to the poor. His ascendancy prompted other politicians to seek a ban of the candidacies of people who control any media outlet.

Despite the advantage of incumbency, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed saw support for his party, Tahya Tounes, fall from 16.5% in May to 8.6% in June. Support for Nidaa Tounes, founded by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, was down from 11.1% to 5% since May.

Another surprise in the poll was the strong performance of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), led by lawyer Abir Moussi, and which received the support of 11.3% of respondents.

Moussi, who advocated the legal exclusion of Islamists, said growing interest in the PDL was due to Tunisians’ disillusionment with the political establishment that had failed to address the country’s economic and social crisis.

The PDL’s strong showing prompted calls from rivals to legally exclude any candidate who engages in an “apology of the policies of the dictatorship.” Moussi, a former senior official of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ruling party, denies the 2011 uprising that toppled his regime was a revolution.

The leftist Popular Front and the other opposition Democratic Current party registered 5.8% and 3.4% support, respectively, compared to 5.5% and 10.1%, respectively, the month before, the poll showed.

The poll results highlighted the effect of the Popular Front’s internal feuding on its support. The party is a coalition of Marxist and pan-Arab nationalist parties united by their opposition to Islamists. It recently plunged into an intense fight over direction and leadership of the coalition.

Nine members of the coalition’s 15-member parliamentary bloc resigned May 28 over disagreements on whether to align with liberal forces against Islamists.

Infighting in the Popular Front broke out in May when Hamma Hammami, general secretary of the Workers’ Party, was selected the coalition’s candidate for presidential elections late this year. The move irked the Democratic Patriots’ Unified Party, which had hoped one of its officials, Mongi Rahoui, would be the Popular Front’s candidate.

The dispute has the two camps squabbling over who controls the Popular Front’s political brand and raised questions about their influence going into the election season.

“The conflict is an old one within the Front,” said Rahoui, arguing that Hammami’s leadership ambitions have prevented the Popular Front from growing. “It is likely that the issue of the candidacy has intensified the crisis and brought it to the open.”

“If I were in his (Hammami’s) position,” Rahoui added, “I would have criss-crossed the country to turn many of the estimated 250,000 Front sympathisers into members of the Front to make it a political force to reckon with.

“Hammami failed to provide the Front with good political governance structures to amplify its support. We have a huge potential for support but it has gone untapped because of Hammami.”

Jilani Hammami, a Front parliament member who backs Hamma Hammami, said the crisis had been staged by Rahoui and his allies to cover “hidden political choices” aimed at siding with liberal parties.

The Popular Front was instrumental in forging an alliance of anti-Islamist forces in 2013 that convinced Ennahda party to quit the government.

The assassination of Popular Front leader Chokri Belaid in 2013 fuelled mistrust of Ennahda, which is accused by the left of having used a secret political apparatus to further its aims.

The infighting is likely to derail the Popular Front coalition’s efforts to isolate Ennahda.

Popular Front lawyers representing Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, another assassinated coalition leader, claimed in court documents that Ennahda developed a “secret organisation” to cement its covert dominance of Tunisia’s political scene.

Ennahda emphatically denied that it engaged in political activity outside the framework of the law. Caid Essebsi proposed that the National Security Council investigate the allegations against Ennahda.