mardi 1 novembre 2011

The Islamists were there to win, the Progressives wanted to be right

Finally free!

Tunisia’s first free election is now history and as expected, the Islamic party Ennadha has come away victorious. No matter what their critics may say, we must acknowledge the extraordinary work done by the party. No doubt, they served a real political lesson to their opponents.

Among all the candidates and parties at the elections, Ennadha was by far the better prepared. Their militants were very active on the field during the campaign and their leader, Rached Ghannouchi, as well as their head of list candidates, delivered excellent performance at the interviews and debates in which they participated. Furthermore, they were one of the only parties who had press liaisons capable of communicating in English with foreign media.

In short, all these elements contributed to the success of Ennahda as the party managed to win 90 of the 217 seats (41.47%) of the Constituent Assembly, far ahead of its nearest rival, the Congress for the Republic, who amassed 30 seats.

There is however another element that largely favored Ennadha in the election of October 23rd. Unlike its opponents, the party was able to gather almost all the Islamic forces in its ranks and present a common front to the electorate.

Instead of opting for a similar strategy, most progressive parties and independent candidates chose to remain alone. Even though they obtained about 50% of the votes, they are now more than 27 different political formations to share the seats! Worse, the five largest progressive parties were not even able to match Ennahda’s results and only obtained 35.47% of the ballots. This effectively renders a majority coalition between them virtually impossible.

Thus, almost 60% of Tunisians voted against Ennahda, but the Islamic party is still the one who will have the most power at the Assembly. Given this situation, the Progressives have no one but themselves to blame. Indeed, whether they want to admit it or not, their strife is largely the cause of Ennadha’s current success. Also, the few slight differences in their programs mixed up electors and diluted the vote. Some of the candidates of the five largest progressive parties even had a difficult time pointing out what distinguished them from their opponents when asked by the media.

Such a situation is not exclusive to Tunisia. Just think about Canada’s general election on May 2nd where the conservatives managed to unite right-wing electors and win a majority with 39.6% of the vote, finishing ahead of the Liberals and the NDP who had collected respectively 30.6% and 18.9%.

The same scenario occurred in Montreal’s municipal elections in 2009 when Gerald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party won a third term despite a difficult campaign in which numerous scandals associated with his administration were reported in the media. The main opposition parties, Vision Montreal and Projet Montreal, had refused to ally themselves before the election, leaving the field open for another victory of Mr. Tremblay with only 37.9% of votes. The two parties had gathered a combined 58.18%.

With that said, the next election in Tunisia should take place in a year or so, giving the government enough time to write the new constitution. The parties are already on a tight schedule and probably won’t have that much time to attract voters and change the perceptions they have towards them. Unless they make terrible blunders, Ennadha should be able to retain their electoral base as the actual conditions are favorable to them – besides the constitution, very few major projects are likely to emerge before the next vote.

The progressive parties will therefore have much to do until the next time Tunisians visit the polls again. By then, they will also have to ask themselves a fundamental question : do we prefer another Ennahda victory or are we willing to compromise to form a coalition against them?

To not consider this option would be ignoring the reality of the situation for progressive parties. They have recently taken a beating from the Islamists, and unless they adapt their strategy, there is no indication that they will not endure an equally brutal defeat come next year.

2 commentaires:

  1. Another great article, and good comparasins, but I have some points of disagreement.

    I disagree that the next 12 months won't change anything in terms of who votes for which party. Another key part of Ennahda's victory which you didn't mention here was the fact that they are seen as a party supportive of the revolution against Ben Ali's regime. They were repressed as dissidents, which wins them some legitimacy in the eyes of those who opposed the old regime, and their rhetoric on issues like corruption has been as radical as almost any other party. Although on a parliamentary and political level this hasn't done much (every party proclaimed this), when talking about Ennahda's base and future vote prospects I think this is going to be important.

    If Ennahda is able to get the lid back on Tunisia's revolutionary movement during the next 12 months - putting a definitive stop on strikes & limiting mass demonstrations, while continuing to push the same neoliberal economic policies which Ben Ali brought in that created much of the poverty & disadvantage that led to the revolution - then there's probably no reason why they can't grow to an outright majority of voters supporting them. On the other hand, if they aren't able to do this, and it becomes clear that (despite their rhetoric about corruption) they represent no real change from the regional hegemony, then they will lose that legitimacy in the eyes of many in my opinion.

  2. Great remark Ted, but I rather think it's the perfect scenario for Ennahda. For the next twelve months, the transitional government that will be appointed won't have a lot of power, similar to the one in place managed by Essebsi since the Kasbah 3. Until the next real legislative election, the government won't start big reforms or major projects that could shape the future of the country simply because that's not the reason why the Constituent Assembly has been elected. It may change something, yes, but Ennahda will have good excuses for everything if the results aren't satisfying.

    If their more religious voters complain that a religious agenda isn't pushed enough forward (in government and/or constitution), Ennahda can say it's because they had to compromise with progressives since they don't have a majority at parliament (and it's actually true). For the moderate/progressive voters, Ennahda will look like a moderate religious party that was open to other people's ideas, such as progressives, like Ghannouchi had promised during the campaign (the "Union government").

    If the population feels the transitional government isn't doing a great work, Ennahda will be able to say it's because they don't have a large mandate and can't go as far as they want (and it will also probably be true). Also that the situation will simply be better when a real elected government will come up for 4 or 5 straight years after the legislative elections.

    I don't feel 1 year is very long in politics, especially when the focus will be a lot on drafting the constitution. To put in place financial reforms and really see the results of it, I think a couple of years is necessary.

    Again, let's not forget that Ennahda won't have that much power. Whatever they'll want to do, they will need the support of either the CPR or Ettakatol, the only two progressive parties that have enough seats at parliament to give them a majority of votes. And the progressives aren't going to accept something that goes against their principles. The next election isn't too far away and, like all the others, they need to keep their base.

    Anyway, the future will tell us more!