Can Islamists share power with secularists? Tunisia is about to find out.

Two secular parties look set to join Tunisia's dominant Islamist Al Nahda party in an alliance that would collectively represent as much as 60 percent of the vote in Sunday's election.

By , Correspondent

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    Tunisian supporters of the Islamic party Al Nahda celebrate as they claim victory at the party's headquarters in Tunis, Tuesday. Al Nahda failed to win an outright majority, meaning a coalition could be formed with two center-left parties. (Note the new Libyan flag on the right.)
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With full results of Tunisia's first-ever democratic election expected as soon as tomorrow, two secular parties looked poised to join the Islamist Al Nahda party in an alliance that could guide the country's political transition with a decisive majority.

The alliance of the Islamist party with center-left parties Congrès pour le République (CPR) and Ettekatol would represent approximately 60 percent of the vote, according to individual party estimates.

With a clear majority and a diverse range of views, the coalition could bring considerable legitimacy to the two chief tasks of Tunisia's post-revolution government: drafting a new constitution and nominating a caretaker administration.

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Should the coalition come to fruition, it would represent a victory for both the Islamists and the secular-leaning parties, as each would have a decisive voice in the drafting of Tunisia's next steps. Throughout the campaign, Tunisians on both the Islamist and secular sides of the country's political spectrum have feared that their opponents would dominate, with potentially paradigm-shifting consequences for Tunisia's national character. A coalition may temper those fears; under one umbrella, compromise between these groups will be of paramount importance.

“Our priority is to build a democratic state that is irreversible,” affirms Sayid Ferjani, a member of Al Nahda's political committee, reiterating calls by the party for the last week for consensus.

Secular groups decline to form opposition bloc

Congrès pour le République (CPR) and Ettekatol say they will each claim roughly 15 percent of the vote, while Al Nahda (also spelled Ennahda) says it has more than 30 percent of the vote.

Although Al Nahda confirmed the coalition agreement to the Monitor on Monday, CPR and Ettekatol secular parties had been slower to acknowledge their negotiations, leaving open the possibility that they would instead choose to form a secular opposition group. On Tuesday evening, however, Ettakatol's president, in an interview with Belgium's Le Soir, indicated a willingness to work with Al Nahda and later confirmed to Agence-France Presse that negotiations were ongoing.

CPR's vice president Abderraouf Ayadi has also acknowledged that talks are under way, while stopping short of confirming any concrete agreement. “It's bilateral, not official, because we are waiting for the definitive results,” he told the Monitor. The party's president, Moncef Marzouki, also declined to comment on specifics, but said at a press conference today that CPR was ready to work with other political parties.

12 draft constitutions already in circulation

Once election results are finalized, the 217 victorious representatives will form a Constituent Assembly intended to draft a new constitution. One of their first tasks, however, will be to name a new government, taking over the reins from the current interim administration.

Already, the shapes of a possible coalition government are becoming clear. Al-Nahda has also said that it will present its secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, as prime minister, which could leave the presidential post available for a member of the secular parties – meaning a secular-leaning president may help guide crucial constitutional negotiations.

After a government is formed, the constitution will likely consume much of the assembly's attention, particularly since political parties agreed earlier this year to conclude discussions of a new constitution within a year of the Constituent Assembly's formation.

Ferjani of Al Nahda's political committee says that given that tight timeline, political parties have already begun circulating potential drafts of a new constitution amongst themselves. He is aware of 12 such drafts, including one written by the Islamist party. “All these will be on the table,” when discussions begin, he says.

Among the most-watched aspects of this constitutional debate will be whether to change the current document's first article, which states that Tunisia's “religion is Islam, its language is Arabic, and its form is the Republic.” Most analysts believe that the political parties will leave this ambiguous phrase in place, rather than risking a confrontation over whether Tunisia's character is fundamentally secular or Islamic.

Other more fundamental questions await the assembly regarding the type of democracy it wants to instill – for example, either a presidential or a parliamentary democracy. Abdelwaheb Ben Hafaiedh, a professor at the University of Tunis and president of the Social Science Forum research center in Tunis, believes the best answer would be to mix presidential and parliamentary power in a system that would depart from the centralization of power seen in former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's regime, though not dramatically.

“Every country wants to build a system that is a progression of its past,” says Prof. Ben Hafaiedh. “But no country can cut ties with the past completely.... We can't do away with our centralization too briskly. ”

Reassurance for key economic players

A center coalition may reassure not just Tunisians, but investors, international partners, and the tourists upon whom so much of the country's economy depends. The need for such reassurances is pronounced. Over the past week, the stock market here fell markedly.

“There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the way forward for Tunisia and investors are nervous about Al Nahda winning a majority vote,” says Ayesha Sabavala, Tunisia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “What is the Al Nahda party's foreign policy, what are the economic policies and how will they achieve these? A lack of information regarding all these questions seems to have had a negative impact on the Tunis stock exchange.”

The center coalition may also be useful to the political parties themselves, who must now try and meet the incredible expectations of the country that began the Arab Spring. Keeping voter support will mean cracking such problems as high unemployment and pronounced regional inequality – all while drafting a new constitution. Expectations to solve those problems are equally daunting and this first-time democratic electorate is eager for change.

“It's in the interest of the political parties [to form a coalition], because no one wants to have the sole responsibility for [the challenge ahead],” says Hafaiedh. “What political party would want to take on all of this alone?”

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