mardi 18 octobre 2011

Why Islamists won’t govern in Tunisia

The logo of the Islamic party, Ennahda

As Tunisia readies for its first democratic elections, foreign observers have voiced fears that the country’s Islamist groups will win the elections – and subsequently impose laws that might threaten hard-won rights for women and minorities. While such a scenario might play out in another Arab country, it’s unlikely to happen in Tunisia.

Sunday’s first democratic vote will decide who is elected to the Constituent Assembly. The winners will write the new Constitution within a year, according to an agreement reached between 12 major parties. The Assembly will also have legislative functions and a responsibility to keep the government in check.

On the eve of the vote, the current situation here is complicated. About six parties are poised to gather the majority of the available seats. All are considered progressive or center-left but one, the Islamic party Ennahda. Though the party has pledged to uphold democracy, secular critics are skeptical that Ennahda has a secret agenda to impose hardline Islam.

Ennahda leads in the polls with 30% of the vote. Their closest competitors trail them at 15%. Prediction polls have been banned since October 1st, but even Ennahda’s opponents agree that unless something dramatic occurs, they will probably finish first.

In the political program Ennahda presented to journalists during the campaign, the party outlined its plans to create a single house parliamentary system led by the members of whichever party obtained the most seats in the election. The new Prime Minister would be the only leader of the country and have the responsibility to form a new government.

Still, the Islamic party will not get a majority of the vote in Sunday’s election. Ennahda will likely win, but they will have to consider forming a coalition government. This is no small task as their opponents have staunchly refused to ally with them.

Meanwhile, the five most important progressive democratic parties have started to privately negotiate their own future coalition. These parties wish to have a presidential system with a legislative assembly instead of a lone parliament. To be implemented, a legislation creating such system (or a parliamentary one) needs to obtain a majority of favorable votes at the Constituent Assembly and would effectively end the Islamists’ ambitions to one day claim the presidency. This progressive alliance seems to be shaping up to become a common front against Ennadha. 

The main reason why a presidential system would be of no help for Ennahda is because it normally requires a candidate to obtain the majority of votes on a popular ballot, and Ennahda’s narrow base is not likely to deliver such a high percentage of votes. Such elections often end on a final-round ballot between two candidates, and Ennahda has almost no chance of attaining the required 50 percent to win.

The party’s 30 percent share of very loyal supporters won’t stand for the compromises that would be necessary to attract undecided voters.

Front National candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen faced a similar situation in France in 2002. Though he earned a spot in the second ballot of the presidential election, he was swiftly defeated in the last round by the more moderate Jacques Chirac because he could not broaden his electoral base.

Therefore, it seems likely that Tunisia will come out of Sunday’s elections with the Islamic party finishing in first place, but not holding the power. Indeed, many of the progressive party’s representatives noted off the record that they have no intention of cooperating with Ennahda; they rather plan to form a coalition in support of a presidential system.

Let’s just hope that this coalition, if it ever comes to be, can adopt a Constitution as well as a stable democracy in the near future. The country desperately needs these issues to be addressed quickly in order to revive its faltering economy and reduce unemployment, especially among young graduates. Certain parties may have to be flexible on their principles but this is a small sacrifice to answer the aspirations of a nation that has suffered so much. Surely the Tunisians deserve meaningful results from democracy after such a long fight against oppression.

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