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Tunisia election results: Islamists are major power, but all is not lost for secularists

With the Islamist Al Nahda party emerging as the dominant power, Tunisia's election results have disappointed secularists. Rather than withdraw in defeat, they must reflect on their missteps and use the new democracy to fight for individual freedoms and more regulations on political financing.

By Marwan Maalouf and Jesse Biroscak / October 26, 2011

Tunis, Tunisia

Nine months after the first revolution of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has given birth to the first freely elected political body of its history, following 23 years of dictatorial rule by ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In previous years, Tunisians already knew the results of their elections before the polls even opened, but this year held surprises for both voters and observers alike. An extremely high turnout (around 70 percent of eligible voters by some estimates) proved that citizens have reconciled their distaste for national politics with their desire for representative government and have not been dissuaded by claims that the revolution has failed.

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Preliminary election results have been disappointing for secular parties, however. Islamists are clearly the dominant power, with the political party Al Nahda (also rendered as Ennahda, meaning "The Awakening") claiming that it has won more than 40 percent of the Constituent Assembly’s 217 available seats (more than 50 percent of the total vote by some estimates).

This electoral defeat for the secularists does not mean that those parties, or observers in the West, should, in despair, quit reform efforts or politics altogether. Rather, secular parties must use this occasion to reflect on their missteps and unify to better serve the Tunisian people. The West must ensure that any support for the Tunisian government hinges on respect for individual rights and freedoms. And both must push for strict regulation of political financing.


Just who are the Islamists now in control? And what went wrong for the secular parties?

Western analysts and even the Nahda party itself have compared the party to Turkey’s Islamist-based Justice and Development Party in order to present themselves as a moderate movement. While their platforms may be similar, even influencing each other at times, the Turkish and Tunisian histories and constitutions are different. Turkey is a hard-line secular state with a long history of separation of religion and state. On the other hand, Tunisia’s current constitution is not explicitly secular and keeps the possibility open for a more religious interpretation of the way the state should function. This is unlikely to change with the coming constitutional modifications, and the potential for oppression in the name of religion becomes a legitimate threat with Islamists in power.

Leading up to the election, the secularists failed to woo the Tunisian public, and now they must respect the political savvy of the Islamists. Al Nahda’s gains in a proportional electoral system were only possible due to the secularists’ disorganized, divided, and opportunistic campaigns. Those who voted for Al Nahda are neither all Islamists nor even mostly conservatives. However, the Ben Ali-style fear mongering championed by most secular campaigns pushed voters away and instead became the best PR that Al Nahda could desire.

During television interviews, for example, secular parties focused on Al Nahda’s predicted policies of gender discrimination, but not as much on the substance of their own platforms. On election day, voters knew Al Nahda’s beliefs and remained clueless about those of the secular parties.

While the opportunity on the campaign trail for secular parties to focus on their own message has passed, a new opportunity awaits them and their supporters. The Tunisian opposition must now abandon its elitist speeches and demagoguery on television and Facebook in favor of closer scrutiny of Al Nahda’s proposals and performance. The opposition must be creative in its communication with Tunisians to illustrate the values at stake.


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