Secularists voice dismay at election gains for Tunisia's Islamist party

Tunisia's election results are not final, but the moderate Islamist party Al Nahda seems poised to get a plurality of the vote. Some secularists voiced alarm, even as the party sought to reassure opponents.

Benjamin Girette/AP
Tunisians hold up banners during a protest against the moderate Islamic party Al Nahda in Tunis, Tunisia on Tuesday. Preliminary results from polling stations across Tunisia indicate that Al Nahda took the largest share of votes by far in the country's landmark elections.

Tensions flared momentarily in Tunis on Tuesday as citizens awaited the official announcement of electoral results in the country's first democratic elections. Hundreds of secular-leaning voters, fearing they had suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the moderate Islamist party, Al Nahda, gathered in front of the electoral commission office, carrying signs decrying what they believed to be fraud.

“There are a lot of people who are disappointed by the result,” says Moez Ali, a founder of the Union of Independent Tunisians for Liberty, a civil society organization that grew out of the Jan. 14 revolution. “We were expecting [Al Nahda to win] – but not by so much.”

Tunisia's independent electoral commission was expected to conclude its vote count by midday Tuesday, announcing which parties and candidates will populate a new constituent assembly meant to draft a new constitution and appoint a caretaker government. However, the commission only released results from five of 33 electoral districts, citing a need for more time because of technical problems. As the sun went down on Tuesday, it was unclear when the full results would be released.

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The delay and preliminary estimates have stirred up speculation that Al Nahda, the moderate Islamist party that has dominated the electoral campaign, will capture far more than the 30 percent of the seats expected. Sayid Ferjani, a member of the party's political committee, told The Christian Science Monitor late Monday that Al Nahda believed it had won a majority based on its own parallel count.

Secularists are confused, upset

Among secularists, there is angry confusion about why they performed so poorly in comparison. The Congrès pour la Republique (CPR) and Ettakatol, two left-leaning secular parties, are expected to have the next most votes after Al Nahda, but the once-dominant Party for Democratic Progress and the smaller Modern Democratic Pole have gathered few seats in the few districts released so far.

“[Among the secularists and youth,] some are insulting one another – it's your fault, it's your fault – some are angry at the international media [for focusing on Al Nahda],” the author of the blog Masseri [My Destiny], who writes about women's rights and helped organized street protests in January, says during an interview. A self-proclaimed modernist, she began writing anonymously after receiving numerous threats.

“Others are circulating proof of fraud,” she continued, describing videos that began to circulate on Facebook by Monday evening. The alleged violations included some polling agents stealing ballots, vote buying both before and on election day, and unfair pressure exerted on voters already in the queue to vote. Between 300 and 400 secular-leaning protesters had gathered in front of the electoral commission by 4 p.m. today, demanding a response to alleged misconduct.

“We are not here against any party, we are against the electoral violations that we saw committed by Al Nahda,” says Myriam Marzouki, a protester who served as an electoral observer. She says that her polling station gave preference to Al Nahda voters by allowing some who were ineligible to cast votes. “The president [of the polling station] saw the violations but said he didn't want to have any problems.”

Others at the protest, however, were more clearly frustrated with the results of the vote. “We're not happy with what happened with Al Nahda,” says Salma, a civil servant at the protest who declined to give her last name out of concern that her comments could have an impact on her work. “They utilized religion just in order to win seats. But if [Rached] Ghannouchi [the leader of the Islamist party] is our leader, it will be a war among the Tunisians.”

Other young secular activists declined to attend the protests, arguing that what was truly needed was political organization to unite the many disparate parties opposing Al Nahda. The youth supporters of all the secular parties are planning to meet next week to discuss how they can unite the various party supporters toward a common political agenda, says Ali of the Union of Independent Tunisians for Liberty.

An impressive election

Despite the concerns of some on the left, international observers uniformly agree that Tunisia's first democratic election took place in a way that was not just free and fair, but incredibly impressive.

“In such a short term, nine months, they have been able to put up extraordinary machinery,” says former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, a co-head of the National Democratic Institute's monitoring mission in the country. “[The electoral process] is not free of some deficiencies, but it truly is impressive.”

The national electoral commission also said at its evening press conference that no electoral violations would be used to cancel votes, unless there was proof of illegal campaign financing.

Al Nahda has 'a different discourse'

Apart from that small rally, Tunis was calm on Tuesday. Across town at the Al Nahda headquarters, the mood was both excited and heavy with the responsibility to lead in a divided political environment. If Al Nahda does indeed have a majority of seats, says Mr. Ferjani of Al Nahda's political committee, it is “problematic, because we feel that there are very high expectations on our shoulders. And we have only a few months to satisfy them.”

Al Nahda will also have to convince its opponents that it is genuine in its promise to respect pluralism and the rights of women. Many critics of the party have accused it of “double speak” – promising to guard rights and freedoms to one audience but promising a more Islamist and restrictive state to its supporters.

“The problem of Nahda is that they have a different discourse,” explained Khadija Cherif, secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights in Tunisia (FIDH). “At the top of the discourse, they say, 'We'll keep things here, we will protect the republic, the [rights of] women, we don't want an Islamist regime. Maybe some of them believe it. … Today they will stick with the republic, but tomorrow – we'll see.”

Al Nahda has denied these accusations repeatedly during the campaign, and Ferjani says that the party will not use a majority to exert undue influence. “We may hold the majority today but we can't hold it forever. We are interested in a system suitable not just for the winners but everyone.”

Part of Al Nahda's strategy is forming coalitions, which it claims to have secured with Ettakatol and CPR. Spokesmen for the two parties, however, continue to decline to speak about coalitions until the results are released.

Youth disenchantment

Coalitions may not placate the voters who took to the streets on Tuesday, however. Many of these same youths now say they feel unrepresented by the political parties; some who attended the manifestation in front of the electoral commission didn't even vote.

“All the political parties are made up of older people," says Abdul Haq Charni, an 18-year-old protester. “They were in their homes while I was on the street being teargassed. So why should they be able to decide my future if I was the one who was fighting on the streets for theirs?”

Though they are relatively few in number, many of the now disenchanted young were at the front of the revolution and could easily organize again.

Whatever the final results, Abdelwahab Hefaiedh, a professor at the University of Tunis, cautioned that the coming hours and days are critical in order to maintain calm and unity in the transition process. “It is absolutely necessary that [Al Nahda] comes out and reassures the people, because there is a complex of fear about how they will lead the country.

“It's not a question of winner or loser but how to stabilize the social body politique.”

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