international analysis and commentary

Democratic transition in Tunisia: elections, patience and a long way to go


The first round of the Tunisian presidential elections took place on November 23 in an atmosphere of strong civic engagement and great international expectations. The leader of Nidaa Tunis and a veteran of Tunisian politics, Beji Caid Essebsi, came first while Moncef al-Marzouqi, currently the interim President, came in second. With a difference of only 6% of votes between them, they will compete for the presidency in a run-off in December.

Participation was as high as the legislative election with more than three million Tunisians casting their ballot. To be noted, however, was the high percentage of people under 30 refraining from voting. Considering that more than half of the population is under the age of 35, and that this specific age group was the main protagonist of the Jasmine Revolution four years ago, this represents a worrying signal.

The Islamist party Ennahda, after an unsuccessful performance in the October legislative elections, decided not to officially support any candidate. The justification was that the party wanted to favor “consensus” and the national interest, beyond partisan logics – a stance espoused throughout the mandate of the National Constituent Assembly. Rashid al-Ghannushi’s speech, at the start of the electoral campaign was clear: Ennahda’s voters could vote for any of the 27 candidates.

Notwithstanding the party’s official declarations, however, several sources hint that Islamists pushed their base to endorse Moncef al-Marzouqi who joined the Islamist-led Troika. Numbers seem to support this argument: while Al-Marzouqi’s center-leftist party, Congress for the Republic, performed very poorly at the legislative elections, obtaining only four seats, during Sunday’s elections Al-Marzouqi obtained almost 1.1 million votes (33.5% of the total). Since he cannot count on a significant electoral base and his party is extremely weak, it is hard to imagine how these impressive results could have been achieved without the vote of Islamists. The frontrunner remains, as predicted by polls conducted before the first round, Beji Caid Essebsi, age 88, who obtained almost 1.3 million votes (39.5% of the total) and looks confident he will win the second and final round.

Nida Tunis is an umbrella of several parties created in 2012 to counterbalance the rise of Ennahda and the Salafis, including different strands, from trade unionists, to leftists to former members of the ancient regime. It is also the largest party in the new parliament, having obtained 86 seats, 15 seats more than Ennahda.

The third Tunisian president, then, will be either Essebsi or Al-Marzouqi. Crucial in this respect will be the ballots cast by people who in the first round voted for the third and fourth candidates, Hamma Hammemi and Slim Riahi. The Popular Front, a group of radical leftist parties led by Hammemi, and the Free Patriotic Union, founded by businessman Slim Riahi, performed well in both elections: Hammemi obtained more than 250,000 votes (7.8% of the total) while the Popular Front has 15 seats at the Assembly. Even the Popular Front is an alliance which includes radical streams, such as the Communist and Maoist parties, and more accommodating ones, like the Socialists. Unsurprisingly, the Popular Front benefited from Hammemi’s political “cleanness” and from the fact that the party has been violently opposed by the rise of Salafism. The assassination of two of its leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, likely by offspring of radical Salafi members, was also crucial in mobilizing support for Hammemi on Sunday.

Lastly, Slim Riahi, a tycoon who placed fifth at the presidential race with more than 180,000 votes (5.5% of the total) and obtained 16 seats at the legislative elections is the last entry in the Tunisian political scene. After developing his own business in Libya, Riahi came back to Tunisia and joined politics. Several allegations of vote buying in the legislative elections have partially tainted his image.

In the meantime, Tunisia will have to wait for the outcome of the presidential elections before a new government can get to work, but the process will not necessarily be smooth as tensions between Al-Marzouqi and Essebsi are on the rise. Al-Marzouqi is pushing for a quick appointment of a new government, as foreseen by the new Constitution, before the second round takes place, while the members of the National Dialogue and Essebsi want the new head of government to be appointed by the next president of the republic. The game played there is for the control of three institutional figures with very different powers within a parliamentary system: the president of the republic, the leader of the legislative and the head of government. While the direct election only concerns the first figure, the battle is raging behind closed doors for the nomination of the other two figures. Behind Al-Marzouqi’s confrontational attitude lies the attempt to at least partially influence the appointment of one of these leaders, while on the other hand it is in Essebsi’s interest to wait and reinforce his position and have as little as possible to concede to Al-Marzouqi and Ennahda.

While these differences might seem cosmetic and of little institutional significance, the power struggle between the two main political camps is being played on terrains which have little to do with political programs, policies and specific issues – but rather have much more to do with interpreting how the transitional phase is supposed to be shaped and, above all, on transitional justice, where the real political consequences for Tunisia’s democratic path will be decided. A committee on transitional justice, called Truth and Dignity headed by Sihem Ben Sedrine, was formed last June by the previous government and has been working on dossiers concerning human rights violations in Tunisia between 1955 and 2013. Many politicians and supporters of the leading party Nida express the fear that some of these dossiers could be politically manipulated and used as a political weapon against Essebsi. By the same token, Nida Tunis could encourage judges to investigate the political killings of Belaid and Brahmi which took place during the two Ennahda governments that, according to some sources, might harbor some responsibilities.

The democratic transition is ongoing in Tunisia, and while the economy is still stagnating and macro-economic indicators have barely moved in the past four years, Tunisians are proud of their political achievements. And patience is not running out, as long as the perception is that things are moving, with the adoption of a good constitutional text and free and fair elections. But obstacles remain, both visible – like economic challenges which would require a sort of national consensus to implement serious reforms – and less tangible and observable – like the workings of transitional justice in the coulisse of the palaces of power where another battle might be in the making.