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.

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.

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.

The United States and Europe have an important role to play here as well, especially in not repeating their historical mistakes. In 2009, the Lebanese elections were lauded as free and fair, but the country was actually a political battleground between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and countries oriented toward the West. Outsiders on both sides flooded the country with billions – yes billions – of dollars in cash and gifts, and the Lebanese, whose teachers, for example, earn a paltry $700 per month, took the opportunity to sell their votes, some for more than $800 apiece. On Election Day in Lebanon, votes had already been purchased and accusations of vote buying or incidences of polling place violations were, accordingly, few and far between.

Western polling station standards are only effective at securing individual rights when vote buying and unequal campaign finance practices have been minimized. The emphasis on observations during the election rather than financial regulation during or prior to the campaigns encourages developing democracies to obey Western polling station standards, but it can put individual rights and freedoms in jeopardy when votes do not represent their rightful owner’s viewpoint.

Tunisian opposition parties and Western democracy advocates should now prioritize independent controls for political financing to avoid relapsing into a largely wealth-controlled government, such as that of Saudi Arabia or the United States. While exact numbers are unavailable, and in spite of controls on campaign advertising, the Tunisian elections were a first sign of money’s influence in the political arena.

For example, Al Nahda opened hundreds of offices across Tunisia and delivered a combination of social services and political advertising. This campaign held a distinct advantage over candidates on independent lists or from smaller parties. Nahda’s numerous field offices offering social services and its 12,000 elections observers were extremely effective at conveying the party’s platform. Levels of domestic and foreign support for regulating and equalizing political financing in Tunisia will help determine the success of Tunisia’s democracy.

Today should begin a new type of struggle – a struggle not against a dictatorship, but rather a unified effort against a dominate elected party. The Tunisian opposition, its supporters, and human rights activists at home and abroad should work to build a culture of individual rights and freedoms – and a separation of religion and state.

Tunisians who voted for the current opposition (secular parties) should not disengage from the political process simply because they lost this round. They should, however, let Al Nahda play the role of the majority party and work to defeat its efforts through fair, democratic channels only. An effective and democratic Tunisian opposition will unify its efforts through available institutions, media, and grassroots campaigning – and never compromise its core set of values.

The real nahda for Tunisians is still to come.

Marwan Maalouf is a human rights lawyer focusing on political reforms and the rule of law in the Middle East and North Africa. Jesse Biroscak is an international political and development consultant specializing in Middle East and North Africa political transitions.

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