A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My Take on Tunisia's Election Results So Far

 I'd hoped to have somewhat fuller Tunisian returns by tonight before offering my own take, but since tomorrow may be busy I'll offer my impressions so far. This is based on 101 of the 217 seats having been declared so far. (You can follow the results here as more come in.)

I've already posted about Al-Nahda's success, and of those 101 seats it had won 43, or a little over 40% of the Assembly. That is unlikely to change; in those constituencies declared so far, including urban and coastal cities where it was not expected to run as strong as in rural areas, Al-Nahda had placed first or second in all as of this afternoon. This included Ben Ali's old home base of Sousse.

But you know that already: Al-Nahda in the lead has been the headline in just about all the international media. What's a bit more surprising is the rest of the field, which is running well behind, with a favorite trailing far behind and one dark horse that has performed surprisingly well.

The People's Democratic Party (PDP), led by Ahmed Nejib El Chebbi, was a legal opposition party in the Ben Ali years, founded in the 1980s. The PDP is left of center and outspokenly secularist; it has strongly opposed Al-Nahda and has said it will not join a unity government or coalition with al-Nahda. Most polls had shown it likely to run second to Al-Nahda. But some PDP members felt Chebbi was emphasizing fundraising over principle and giving places on the party list to large donors; also the PDP has supported a strong Presidency (by which Chebbi clearly means a strong President Chebbi), and strong Presidencies are something many Tunisians want to put behind them.

Still, I think a lot of Western observers expected the PDP to run second to Al-Nahda. No such luck. Of those 101 seats so far declared, it has won only five, and is running fifth.

Actually in second place is the Congress for the Republic (CPR), led by Moncef Marzouki, which has 16 seats so far. Marzouki, a human rights activist, spent the past decade in exile in France, where the party functioned among Tunisian expatriates (who are represented in the Assembly with 18 seats, 10 from France alone. Al-Nahda won 9 of the 18.)  For what it may be worth, Marzouki actually reached out to Al-Nahda during the campaign and met with its leaders, and has said the CPR would consider a coalition. Some thought that would doom him with secularist voters, but instead it may have helped the CPR, just as the PDP's adamant refusal to talk with Al-Nahda may have  hurt them with voters.

Most predictions expected the Democratic Forum on Labor and Liberties, known from its Arabic name as Ettakatol, to run in the top few positions. It was also legal under Ben Ali, but only legalized in 2004. With 10 seats out of the 101, it is doing all right.

But the party running third after Al-Nahda and the CPR but ahead of Ettakatol and the PDP, is the real dark horse, with 12 seats so far. Many of the media guides to "major parties" did not even include it; with over 100 registered parties, most are not taken very seriously, but this dark horse is running third. This is what is known as the Aridha Chaabia, from the Arabic of its full name, the Popular Petition for Freedom, Justice, and Development, led by Mohamed Hechim Hamdi, who is a Ph.D. in Contemporary Islamic Studies from SOAS in London (unusual in Tunisia, where most academics have their degrees from France or Francophone institutions).

A number of other parties have won from one to three seats each. So far, with 101 of 217 declared, one should add to the headlines everyone is running about Al-Nahda that it is running strongly everywhere, domestically and among Tunisians abroad, but that the PDP ran poorly, while the CPR (and Ettakatol, which is also willing to talk coalition with Al-Nahda) did rather better, and the dark horse of Aridha Chaabia seems to be the surprise.

In other words, hey, real elections where the outcome surprises people!

Meanwhile, at Foreign Policy, Erik Williams declares the elections a success before all the votes are in: they were non-violent, had a big turnout, were pluralist, and were fair: Al-Nahda was allowed to win.

If later results substantially alter my reading above, I'll update accordingly.


David Mack said...

This is a Goldilocks Election. An-Nahda, a moderate Islamist party, gets a strong plurality in a country where the pious majority has long been dominated by the secular minority. There are a variety of other parties for coalition formation. Huge turnout. No violence and no obvious intimidation of voters. A respected elder statesman oversees the transition along with an army which has been apolitical and professional. What's not to like? It's early days yet, but this skeptic of the Arab Spring is beginning to feel a bit optimistic. Since the uprising started in Tunisia and spread rapidly, it is just possible that the Tunisian example will once again be contagious. Let's hope that the West helps assure that Tunisia's economic problems do not make democracy look bad during a time of global austerity and recession.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Amen. I wish things were looking this good in Egypt.