Elections in Tunisia – preliminary results
After an impressively calm Sunday dominated by long queues in front of the electoral bureaus here in Tunis, preliminary results are slowly trickling in. Amongst the least surprising of these is the resounding victory by النهضة (Ennahdha – Renaissance), which is set to become the premier party of post-revolutionary Tunisia. Ennahdha had been at the head of most pre-electoral polls and either finished first or a close second in all electoral districts for which results circulate so far. An Islamist party – even a moderate one, self-styled on the AKP’s model – winning a democratic election outright in an Arabic country is a historic event in and of itself of course. The FIS had won the first round of elections in Algeria in 1991 only for the secular FLN-government to annul the second tour leading the country straight into a bloody civil war the aftershocks are filled up to today. In Palestine, حماس (Hamas) won the legislative elections in 2006 only for Western governments to turn around and impose sanctions on the newly, democratically elected government. A democratically elected Islamist-led government – or in this case technically a constitutive assembly, which will appoint an interim government as well as propose a constitution – emerging peacefully from the Tunisian revolution and accepted as an interlocutor by Western powers would be historically unprecedented and an important symbol for political development in the volatile region. While this looks like a distinct possibility at the moment it remains Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) for the time being and in any case is widely being discussed in the Western media already.
Back to Tunisia then. Aside from the expected success by Ennahdha a number of surprising subplots stick out. The biggest of these might be the trouncing of the PDP, the biggest – legal – opposition party under the Ben Ali regime, which had been portrayed in the Western media – and by itself domestically as well as abroad – as the secular counterpart to Ennahdha in a duel of – near – equals. The PDP will in all likelihood finish fifth at best. Its devastating results symbolize well the foreign media’s superficial understanding of the political scene in Tunisia as well as the dramatic disconnect between Tunis’ secular elites and the majority of the highly critical and economically disowned Tunisian population. Thus rumors circulating as to money from sources related to the ancien régime financing the PDP’s electoral campaign sowed distrust against it, more importantly though the party was seen – unfairly maybe and to a large extent based on its participation in the intensely unpopular interim Mohamed Ghannouchi government – as not offering enough of a break from the previous regime.
An interesting political science question to consider following these elections is that the only two parties to have significantly invested in advertisement before the start of the official campaign period (during which advertisements were forbidden) had little success at the urns. This includes the PDP but also the UPL a generic party founded by a Tunisian business man, Slim Riahi – an émigré who had become rich in the UK – that was omnipresent in Tunis for a few weeks with advertisements at every bus stop and in every newspaper. His party has not won even a single seat so far. Political advertisement seems to have played into Tunisians’ fear of parties ‘just wanting to win’ or wondering about whose money (and interest) were behind them.
The two parties that performed well alongside Ennahdha were interestingly enough the ones that had broken out of the secular parties’ confrontational course versus Ennahdha, the CPR and Ettakatol. The CPR, led by Moncef Marzouki a long-time opponent to Ben Ali and former President of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, had mainly because of its leader become the talk of the town in the days before the elections. A completely unrepresentative survey of my Tunisians friends in the week preceding the elections showed nodded approval to Marzouki everytime someone brought him up – which happened frequently. Meanwhile Ettakatol, which some Tunisians argue has the attributes of a weather cock, largely confirmed its good standing in pre-electoral poll numbers.
Following these two – on the European spatial axis, not the American one – (centre-)left parties comes the biggest surprise winner of these elections, العريضة الشعبية (Aridha Chaabia). Arguably even many Tunisians had not heard much of this party before this weekend. Its leader Hechmi Hamdi lives in London from where he runs a private TV station, Mostakella, which serves as his platform for a decidedly populist presidential campaign. He personally did not even stand for elections this time around, yet his promises of free health care and grants to be paid out to all unemployed, spawned enough votes to catapult his party onto the national scene. Especially in Sidi Bouzid, Hamdi’s home region, Aridha Chaabia had an astonishing amount of success with its list, led by Hamdi’s brother, looking likely to finish with the highest vote total of all parties. Even if unlikely for political reasons, the Tunisian electoral commission (ISIE) has thrown some rain on Aridha Chaabia’s parade by declaring that complaints against the party have been raised because of Mostakella’s continued advertising following the official closure of the campaign. ISIE could invalidate part or all of Aridha Chaabia’s lists.
Looking towards the future then, the Tunisian Constitutive Assembly looks to be dominated by Ennahdha, which most likely will be short of anywhere up to 20 votes of an absolute majority. They will thus in all likelihood enter into some kind of an – issue-based? – coalition with the CPR and Ettakatol. Ariadha Chaabia presents an unpredictable factor in an already historically unprecedented situation in Tunisia as does the PDP’s handling of its – to be expected – isolated opposition role.