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.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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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.

As Ettakatol considers its options, weighing in Ennahda's favor is the lure of simplicity. If the two parties joined forces, they would require very few other parties to gain the majority. By contrast, a coalition of secular parties would likely include a handful of parties all of a similar size and each with their own leadership, raising the possibility of gridlock and internal conflict. Ennahda and Ettakatol have also maintained contact throughout the campaign, according to members of Ennahda and independent candidates who declined to be named for the political sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.

The two parties are also among the few political organizations that existed under Mr. Ben Ali. That has given them stature. “I chose my party for their credibility,” says Iman Issawi, a voter from the Tunis suburbs. “I would rather vote for someone who said no to the dictator when he was in power” than a party that has just formed.

In the name of national unity, both parties have suggested that they would be interested in forming a technocratic initial government that is led not by politicians but by nationally respected figures who could rise above the daily debate. Ettakatol first proposed this idea in early October. And speaking on Thursday, Ettakatol spokesman Mr. Bennour said in an interview that it would govern with Ennahda “only if there was a government of national unity.”

On Monday, Mr. Marzouki, the candidate in Tunis's first district, confirmed that Ennahda was in favor of appointing major national figures – not party figures – to important posts.

Meanwhile however, if Ettakatol chose more secular partners, such a coalition would share a closer ideological proximity on the role of religion. While Ennahda has based its campaign around the idea that Islam should be enshrined in Tunisia's state – while still protecting the country's pluralism – Ettakatol has argued strictly the opposite.

“Our priority is social justice,” Bennour said last Thursday, “the Islamists' [Ennahda] priority is culture.” He called Ennahda “militant Islamists” and complained about their allegedly provocative rhetoric during the campaign.

What these tensions suggest is that Ettakatol's demand for a national-interest government may be the most likely scenario. Further proponents of this would likely come from the plethora of independent candidates and smaller parties who are likely to gain seats here and there and will have to join one political group or another once the politicking begins.

A move to the middle?

Such a government would also portend a move to the middle, where the national debates of the day, including the makeup of the state, could be decided separately from pressing needs such as economic growth.

“In 2012, we really have to get back into growth,” says Bechir Bouraoui, president of the youth foundation Generation Tunisie Libre, who spent the past three months touring the country and speaking with the country's often-unemployed youths. “There are lots of young people who are lost. They see that their regions are not developing well. They see that there are three, four, or five members of their family who are all jobless.”

Of course, a big tent government could also be problematic, given the very real differences between the parties. Because of strict campaigning rules, major political parties have had only a limited space to debate their differences out loud thus far, so it's unclear how well they can cooperate.

Air of hope

Yet on the streets of Tunis today, hopeful anticipation is palpable as people go about their work. The calm that pervaded voting booths yesterday remains, albeit with a hint of emotional expectation.

Mr. Bouraoui shakes and says he is still emotional awaiting the result. He went to the streets in January and quit his job to help educate voters for the campaign.

No matter where the vote falls, he says, he has already seen proof of one thing in this country, which ignited the Arab Spring: “In Tunisia – we can only move forward,” he repeats. “We cannot do anything but progress.”

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