Tunisians have participated in the first genuinely free elections for generations. Joseph Daher, co-author of The People Demand: a short history of the Arab revolutions, analyses Tunisia’s new political scene and asks what next for the country.
Tunisia has held the first elections in the region since the beginning of the Arab revolutions in January. They are Tunisia’s first free elections where the outcome is not pre-determined since 1956.
The winning party in these elections are the Islamists of Al Nahda claiming 30-40% of the votes, followed by the centre left parties the Congress Party for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakol, gathering together around 30% of votes.
Al Nahda is considering forming a coalition with both Ettakol and the CPR, while reassuring trade and economic partners and investors that they hope very soon to have stability and the right conditions for investment in Tunisia.
Al Nahda has nevertheless recently been a target of criticism from some Western countries, especially France, characterising it as a fundamentalist party hostile to the West and its interests. The right of the Tunisian people for self determination is criticised by some Western powers which supported Ben Ali’s dictatorship until the last moment, while their description of Al Nahda’s so-called extremism is far from the reality. Al Nahda is certainly not hostile to Western imperialism and the capitalist system.
Tunisians went in their masses to vote - nearly 90 per cent of eligible voters - to elect the 217 members of the constituent assembly across 33 districts. More than 1,400 lists had been created. Each list had to have a candidate under the age of 30 to give higher representation to the country’s youth. The names on each list were also required to alternate between men and women.
These elections led to a body which is responsible for drafting a new constitution, in addition to being in charge with appointing an interim president and a caretaker government for the duration of the drafting process. More than 11,000 candidates were running in the elections, representing more than 80 political parties. Several thousand candidates were running as independents.
Despite the great hopes around these elections, many on the left in Tunisia believe that this Constituent Assembly, which is the result of a popular mass movement that brought down the second provisional government, is being hijacked by the main political parties from the liberals, Islamists and centre-left to impose only minimal changes in the future constitution and in the landscape of the country. But Tunisians struggled for much more than minimal change in their society.
Main political tendencies
A number of tendencies have featured in these elections.
The winning party of Al Nahda was the favourite since the beginning of the campaign. They have repeatedly stated that they want to follow the example of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party.
Al Nahda, like the AKP, favours a capitalist system, not challenging the Tunisian debt and the current economic system. They have declared their intentions to respect the various agreements with international financial and EU institutions, while the leader of the party, Rached Ghannouchi, repeatedly stated these past few months that demands for higher salaries are counter-revolutionary at this point in time.
The Al Nahda party is also not hostile to western powers, developing meetings and contacts with the US and UK these past few months. They held meetings in the US with well known Zionist Senators and House Members (McCain, Liberman, Ackerman, etc..). A representative of Al Nahda in a meeting with US representative cited religious parties in Israel as example of religious and democratic parties. Some of its most important figures and spokesmen were actually engaged in 'dialogue' with the Americans on its behalf for several years before the overthrow of Ben Ali, according to cables from the US embassy in Tunis obtained by WikiLeaks.
The party has very good relationships with counter-revolutionary Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been financing the party massively during the campaign. This allowed Al Nahda to build a network based on clientelist relations with some of its constituencies, to pay for Ramadan meals and wedding ceremonies in attempts to garner votes, while operating out of a gleaming high-rise in downtown Tunis, giving away professionally published paperbacks in several languages to lay out its platform, distributing wireless headsets for simultaneous translation at its news conferences, and handing out bottled water to the crowds at rallies.
Al Nahda’s position towards women’s rights is also ambiguous. While putting forward Souad Abdel-Rahim, a non-veiled candidate of the party, and reiterating that they would preserve the achievements and rights of women, it nonetheless promoted a book from Salafis authors advocating the separation between men and women in public.
The second tendency is the centre left, divided among different forces such as the Ettakatol, Congress Party for the Republic (CPR) and Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). These political parties have generally supported a raise in the minimum salary, while willing to ease regulations to increase foreign investment. They also do not want to break the different agreements with International financial and European institutions, and have no intention of challenging the Tunisian debt legality.
The various components of the anti-capitalist left led by the PCOT (Communists) and of what remains of the radical Front of January 14 have not done well during these elections. This tendency has been characterised by its failure to unify the various tendencies of the ant capitalist left. They were also unable to frame the main political debates around socio economic and political issues. The debate was instead often framed around the opposition between secularism and religion, while the real opposition in the Tunisian society is between on one side the people who want to continue the revolution and to achieve real changes in society - and those in favour of the status quo with minor modifications.
The main demands of the anti capitalist left, led by the PCOT, included cancellation of the debt and association agreements with the EU and other financial institutions, while arguing for the liquidation of the legacy of the repressive apparatus of the old regime. They also promote a plan of equitable development between regions and direct democracy, free services in the sectors of transport, health and communication, and the removal of so-called ‘cultural exception’ applied to the signing of international conventions, such as human rights and gender equality.
The final tendency, which did not gather a large number of votes, was represented by the liberals. As well as new political figures, they include former members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR), Ben Ali’s old party.
The Free Patriotic Union (FPU) is an example of these new liberals. It was created by a group of Tunisian businessmen who have lived abroad for years without much previous involvement in politics. The FPU has outspent every other party in advertising. The party is running on a platform advocating a regional development model based on a market economy and large projects involving mainly private investment. Imed Belkacem, one of the party's co-founders, declared several times that the FPU fills the centre-right void left by the dissolution of the former ruling party, the RCD.
Ongoing social mobilisation
The social situation has nevertheless deteriorated in the period between the overthrow of Ben Ali and now, despite promises from the various interim governments to tackle the increasing social and economic problems of the country. Unemployment has increased, while the parallel or black market is constantly growing. Benefits for the unemployed were only paid for a few weeks and layoffs are increasing. The production of cereals, fruits and vegetables has sharply diminished as prices continue to rise.
Social mobilisations have been ongoing. The Union of Graduate Unemployed (UGU) and other revolutionary leftist parties are at the heart of these mobilizations. At the beginning of October the UGU organized a national meeting in Sousse which was attended by about 500 graduate students and unemployed. Their main demands were around social and political emancipation.
In the middle of August, the mobilisations promoted and led by leftists, unions members, lawyers and UDC reached a peak gathering more than ten thousands of demonstrators in Tunis. They were protesting against the release, with the complicity of the judiciary and the current Prime Minister, of some representatives of the old regime. This demonstration was repressed by the police and a demonstrator was shot dead.
The union bureaucracy, in collaboration with the government, called another demonstration in an isolated area in the outskirts of the city - with the support of liberal political parties and the islamist Al Nahda - to try to absorb the anger of the protesters. They gathered less than 1000 demonstrators. Elsewhere in Tunisia, protests continued outside the headquarters of the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers), in Sfax, Sousse, Monastir, etc...
The day before the poll, the police clamped down on a sit-in outside the Kasbah, near government offices, by young men who had been shot by security forces during the uprising, demanding that the government help them with basic healthcare. In addition to the sit-in, seven young men have been on a hunger strike the week before the elections, protesting against the interim government's failure to take care of their basic health needs.
Another ten injured men travelled to Tunis from Kasserine and Thala to join them, but the government is continuing to refuse the injured men free hospitalisation. All of them had been shot by security forces as they protested peacefully in the days immediately before Ben Ali was ousted.
The discourses of the various main parties reiterate the same rhetorical commitment to democracy, freedom, justice, good governance and rule of law, but without suggesting any concrete proposals to fulfil and implement the demands of the Tunisian people since they began the revolution at end of the last year.
These main political parties have not challenged the current government and the remnants of the old regime. Repression continues, while some political parties are still forbidden (such as the Workers League). The current government is committed to paying the illegal debts created by the previous dictatorship of Ben Ali to its international creditors, while collaborating and demanding the political and economic support of the imperialist West (as seen in a visit to the US in October, led by the Tunisian Prime Minister M. Béji Caïd Essebsi). This government also refused to grant visas to eleven out of the twelve Palestinians invited to the Tunis meeting for the Third Arab Bloggers meeting.
Most of the political parties in the new Constituent Assembly neglect the social and democratic aspects of the revolution. The Tunisian people need to continue their ongoing revolutionary process to achieve all their rights and see a democratic, social and anti-imperialist Tunisia.