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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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