Tunisia’s municipal elections raise questions about future of secular-Islamist entente

Some within Nidaa Tounes said they hoped for bold decisions, including a full reorganisation of the party.
Sunday 13/05/2018
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi greets people upon his arrival to cast his vote at a polling station in Soukra, on May 6. (AFP)
Saving Nidaa Tounes. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi greets people upon his arrival to cast his vote at a polling station in Soukra, on May 6. (AFP)

TUNIS - The results of Tunisia’s municipal elections unsettled the complacency of the leading secularist party, Nidaa Tounes, and its liberal allies regarding their ability to keep the political initiative while maintaining their de facto alliance with Islamist Ennahda Movement.

The elections May 6 recalled the 2014 legislative vote in which Ennahda won despite losing. The Islamists suddenly became the leading party in parliament after Nidaa Tounes, founded by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, splintered over ties to Islamists and personality clashes. The result was that Nidaa Tounes was no longer the leading parliamentary bloc.

A similar scenario seems to have unfolded in 2018 as Ennahda finished ahead of Nidaa Tounes in most municipal councils. Expectations had been for the opposite to happen.

Secularist politicians fear Ennahda could use the momentum of the municipal elections to win the general elections next year.

“Today, all minds are focused on the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections and the triumph of Ennahda in them is not a far-fetched assumption,” said Zied Krichen, a noted columnist and expert on Islamism in Tunisia. “If that happens that will prove the failure of the ruling elites that had won in 2014, including President Beji Caid Essebsi, who beat the Islamists and their allies by taking a path fully different of them.”

Tunisia political analysts said Ennahda’s May 6 outcome has not been put into proper context. Wariness about Ennahda’s sweeping victories next year might be in fact exaggerated for several reasons.

The Islamist party’s disciplined electorate made a difference in the municipal elections essentially because of the low overall voter turnout (35%), a scenario that is unlikely to be repeated in 2019’s legislative and presidential elections.

The low turnout, itself,  was the result of the widespread frustration about both the Islamists and Nidaa Tounes.

“The results of the municipal elections reflected the failure of the alliance between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. Both parties lost a huge part of their electorate,” said University of Tunis instructors Cherif Ferjani and Mohamed Khemissi in an analysis of the vote.

However, the secularist party lost much more in terms of potential voter support. Nidaa Tounes saw the numbers of its voters fall from 1.3 million in 2014 to some 300,000 in the municipal ballots of 2018 while Ennahda lost almost 500,000 voters from its 941,000 votes in 2014, they said.

According to an opinion poll published by the Tunisian daily Le Maghreb,  70% of voters who cast their ballots for Ennahdha in 2014 voted again for the Islamist party in the municipal elections.  Only 42% of Nidaa’s supporters did.

The general disillusionment of the public had to do with the perceived poor performance of successive governments and the deteriorating quality of life in the country. Analysts said there is no indication ruling elites would be able to turn around the economic and social situation that had so affected the grim mood of the voters.

It is unlikely the government will be able to carry out reforms to trim a 15.5% jobless rate, a 7.7% inflation rate and the steep decline of the Tunisian currency before next year’s general election.

“Politicians went so far in marginalising the citizens and ignoring their big and small dreams. They got a thundering slap from the voters who stayed away of the polling stations and delivered a low turnout,” said Abdelhamid Riahi, editor-in-chief of the Al Chourouk daily newspaper.

“It is a resounding message of voters’ apathy. Will this message get satisfying answers before it is too late?” he asked.

Another factor in the election results was the strong showing of independents, who came first in the polls clinching about one-third of the votes. Nidaa Tounes analysts said the majority of independent voters were much closer politically to their party than to the Islamists and that the choice of mayors will eventually reflect that.

All eyes are now turned to Caid Essebsi in the hope he would give the political class, especially secularists, a wake-up jolt. He might, in fact, have to push the cadres of the party he founded towards re-examining their discredited ways to avoid ballot box failures in 2019.

“President [Caid Essebsi] is well aware that he is at crossroads and that he should take bold and painful decisions. The question is whether he will rise to the challenge or limit himself to the attempt of plugging the hole in the leaking boat,” said Krichen.

Nidaa Tounes officials said their party is the main counterweight to Ennahda on Tunisia’s democratic path, a type of balance that made the political transition a success.

Observers, however, said that without Caid Essebsi’s decisive involvement to strengthen the party’s organisation ahead of elections next year, Nidaa Tounes could follow the path of two other secular parties with once-promising futures that did not survive their alliances with Ennahda.

The centre-left Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known as Ettakatol, was weakened to near extinction after failing to win a single seat in the parliamentary elections 2014 and in municipal elections in 2018 after its alliance in the 2011-13 government.

The left-wing Congress for the Republic, led by then-interim President Moncef Marzouki, disappeared from the landscape after its pact with Ennahda. It was replaced by Al-Irada, a populist formation that managed only 1% of the vote in the municipal polls.

Sources said Nidaa Tounes is aware of the risks ahead. Soul searching within the party since the elections has been focused on cementing its fractured leadership and on addressing the confusion among its rank and file.

Some within Nidaa Tounes said they hoped for bold decisions, including a full reorganisation of the party and reunification of its ranks.

Ennahda’s leaders insist that alliances with secularists are crucial for the party to survive. They are therefore unlikely to relinquish their ties to Nidaa Tounes.

“We are aware that, as Islamists, we are not welcome in the Maghreb and are rejected in the Arab region and we do not have support and acceptance in the rest of the world,” said Ennahda official Lassaad Jouhari.

For Nidaa Tounes, the challenge, now, is how to regain the driver’s seat in Tunisian elctoral politics.