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Unlikely kingmaker emerges in Tunisia's election

Tunisia's election appears to be giving a strong vote to the moderate Islamist party Ennahda. But the much smaller and secular Ettakatol party may determine who forms the majority in the constituent assembly.

By Elizabeth DickinsonContributor / October 24, 2011

A worker in the independent commission organizing the vote in Tunisia tabulates votes after the country's general elections at a counting center in Tunis on Monday. Moderate Islamists said on Monday their party appeared to be ahead in Tunisia's first free election since an uprising earlier this year that set off the Arab Spring revolts, hinting at a shift in a country long known for its secularism.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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Tunis, Tunisia

As results trickle in from Tunisia's first democratic election, the broad strokes are clear: The moderate Islamist Ennahda party is likely to win far more seats than any of the other more than 80 political parties that contested the vote. Yet who forms the majority in the Constituent Assembly, a 217-seat body that will write a new constitution and name a government, may depend on a much smaller party: the secular and centrist Ettakatol, which the most recent polling predicts will win between 10 to 15 percent of the votes.

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The choice for Ettakatol is between a coalition with Ennahda or the numerous parties who oppose it on the secular left. Who Ettakatol sides with could determine who wins a charged debate over the role of Islam in the state. If Ettakatol binds with secular groups, they could challenge Ennahda's hegemony – or even overtake it. But if Ettakatol sides with the Islamist party, Ennahda's dominance – and its role in crafting the identity of Tunisia's democracy – will be sealed.

On Monday in Tunis, Abou Yareb Marzouki, Ennahda's candidate in Tunis's first district, said that his party had an agreement to govern with Ettakatol and one other smaller, secular peer, the Congress for the Republic (CPR). “[These] two parties who have accepted to govern with us,” he told the Monitor.

"[The coalition] was a decision made even before the elections," said Sayid Farjani, a member of Ennahda's policy committee. "It is only left to be implemented."

But Mohamed Bennour, a spokesman for Ettakatol, said by phone on Monday that there was not yet a decision about whether to join Ennahda. “We won't make any decision until we have the results,” he said today. And on Thursday, he suggested another coalition, with fellow secularists: the Party for Democratic Progress (PDP) and the Modern Democratic Pole.

Unlikely kingmaker

Ettakatol is an unlikely kingmaker in what has been a complicated election so far. More than 100 political parties formed after a Jan. 14 revolution that ousted former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Ennahda dominated the so-called Islamist right with sophisticated organization and broad membership. A plethora of smaller parties and independent candidates have split the secular middle and left. Results are expected Tuesday.

Yet now, just a day after millions of Tunisians went to the polls, it may decide the ruling majority in the coming stage of Tunisia's democratic transition. Ennahda is unlikely to be able to lure any other secular parties into its camp. Nor could the secularists form a majority coalition without Ettakatol on board.

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