Tunisia triggered the Arab spring in 2010. Four years on, the country has consolidated the Arab spring by holding its second free and fair parliamentary on October 26 and the first round of the presidential election on November 23.
In the second parliamentary election, the secular and centrist party Nida Tounes, a party established in 2012, polled well enough to emerge as the major party with 86 seats in a parliament of 217 deputies. Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party, which won the first ever election in 2011, came a close second with 69 seats, a considerable slide from its previous tally of 89 seats. The Patriotic Union won third place in the roll call by gaining 16 seats. In the fourth place fell the Popular Front, the party of left, with 15 seats.
The turnout was 66 per cent which is an improvement upon the previous election which saw a turnout of 49 per cent. Now the victorious party, led by Beji Caid Sebsi, a veteran politician with ties to the regime of Abidine Ben Ali, is casting around for coalition partners in order to form the government. The majority party would rather prefer coalition with other likeminded parties on the liberal-left spectrum. However, the Ennahda party has called for a government of national unity to entrench the foundations of democratic and constitutional rule.
Nida is populated by remnants of the old Abidine Ben Ali-led party of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).The party also inhabits both public sector employees union and the country’s largest business interest union. To marry the interests of both can prove the biggest headache for the party in government. To some, the party represents the old order and its associated authoritarian tendencies which are amply reflected in the organisational structure and decision-making processes of the party.
The Ennahda, on the other hand, is credited with a more democratic decision making process with a balanced involvement of grassroots and top leadership. One of the reasons attributed to the ascendency of Nida party is the growing disenchantment with the performance of the Ennahda party in office. Under the party’s rule many progressive and left leaning leaders were assassinated for which the ruling party was assigned much of the blame. The parties that formed the ruling troika with Ennahda were given a severe drubbing too. In particular the centre-left party, the Congress of the Republic, slumped from 29 to 4 seats.
This shows that despite Ennahda’s poor record in office, the party has held onto its solid core of support among Islamists. While the centre-left liberal vote from the ruling troika partners has migrated to the other three parties: Nida, the Patriotic Union and the Popular Front.
There are signs that a considerable majority of people have turned to the party associated with old regime which is etched in popular memory as the party of stability, employment and better governance. Its experienced leaders present reassuring and steady prospect at a very turbulent time in Tunisian history.
Yet mixed with these signs are also the lurking fears that the party might relapse into old order and return to its old bad ways. Whether the latter happens depends a lot on Nida’s choice of coalition partners and their ability to rein in the old instincts of the party’s top leadership. This looks to be a promising possibility in view of the good record of sensitive political compromises and pragmatic deal-making of the Tunisian political class in recent years.
However, the stellar achievement of organising two parliamentary elections cannot be under-emphasised. This across-the-board commitment to a constitutionally and democratically determined future is what sets Tunisia apart from the rest of the Arab and African Arab world.
Of all the countries buffeted by the Arab spring, Tunisia alone has held onto a reformist and peaceful course with all actors acting consultatively, collectively and constructively to preserve the gains of the revolution. Tunisia lit the spark of what came to be known as the Arab spring when an unemployed fruit-seller set himself ablaze in a remote Tunisian town in December 2010. This led to a countrywide agitation which resulted in the overthrow of the despotic regime of Ahmed Ben Ali within a month.
The Tunisian uprising sparked off copycat uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Libya. Yet, with any further promise of the Arab Spring snuffed out in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya with a mix of return of old regime and destructive anarchy , Tunisia has preserved the revolutionary promise.
In the process the country has managed to pull off the miracle of a new progressive constitution. The constitution, which was the product of intense and wider debate, is a consensus document signed by all political and social forces within the country. Ennahda, the largest party in the 2011 election, withdrew its demand for Sharia in order to get the widest possible support for the document. Similarly, all political forces agreed to form a caretaker government to prepare the way for second parliamentary elections held on October 26 under the new constitution.
In a similar spirit of accommodation all parties have accepted the result of the October election. Ennahda took the lead in conceding defeat at the ballot box. This spirit of compromise was also engendered by the mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which had disastrously alienated all sections of the population. The result was the return of the military regime in all its old glory which has since then worked to efface all signs of revolutionary upsurge.
The process of democratic advance in Tunisia is further assisted by a confluence of propitious circumstances. One, the Tunisian military has stayed aloof from politics as opposed to the Egyptian army. Two, the Tunisian civil society is more educated and robust, with a long tradition of liberal left political activism and traditions. Three, all political forces in Tunisia have stayed unwavering on the role of parliamentary democracy, constitutional rule and difficult political compromises as a way out of the authoritarian past.
This auspicious cocktail bodes well for Tunisian future.