Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Understanding the "Islamist Wave" in Tunisia

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Understanding the "Islamist Wave" in Tunisia

Article excerpt

On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held the first free and democratic elections in the country's history. Nine months after the popular uprising, known as the Jasmine Revolution, which toppled a decades-long dictatorial regime, Tunisians were able to experience one of the most basic facets of democracy: the right to vote. Thus, Tunisians headed to the polls to elect members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) with a sense of renewed hope. For nearly all of the voters, it was in fact their first time participating in an election. It was also the first time voters could go to the polling station without prior instructions or injunctions.

Voters were called upon to elect 217 members of the NCA, whose task is to appoint an interim government and to drafta new constitution within one year, and to prepare the country for general elections. The final results of the elections were announced on November 14, 2011. The Islamist party Ennahda won a relative majority, obtaining 89 seats. Ennahda was then declared the winner of the election. Tunisians in the cities, in rural areas of the interior, and especially in Europe reportedly voted for Ennahda. Having, however, won a relative majority and not an absolute one, Ennahda was compelled to form a coalition with the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, both secular center-leftparties.


Examining the parties that won seats in the NCA, it is striking to find that the majority of them are from the secular political left. Together, the social-democratic forces won 127 of the seats (considerably more than the 89 seats won by Ennahda). The following is the list of parties and independents elected to the NCA:

It is noteworthy that the three parties that received the most seats-Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic Party (CRP), and al-Aridha Chaabia-all have leaders who lived in exile before the Jasmine Revolution took place. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader, lived in London as a political refugee from the early 1990s on. Moncef Marzouki, the CRP's leader, moved to France in 2002, in order to continue his political activism against the regime. Hemchi Hamdi, the founder of al- Aridha Chaabia, is instead a London-based Tunisian tycoon.

The main problem in these elections, however, was the sheer number of participating forces: no less than 110 parties and 1,570 electoral lists with some 11,000 candidates ran in the elections. This proliferation, a sign of democratic immaturity, would cripple elections anywhere. This is especially the case in a small country like Tunisia, whose population is only 10 million.

Even though many of the socialist, liberal, and democratic parties were nearly identical in their orientation, differing only in small nuances, they failed to run together, thereby dispersing the vote. Many of them wound up with only one seat in the NCA. The result can be referred to as an "asymmetric coordination failure," where too many parties contended for the same votes, thereby splintering a potential majority, and inadvertently leading to the election of a government that does not accurately reflect the political makeup of the population.1 Ennahda thus profited from the fragmentation of the secular camp; had the socialist-liberal-democratic opposition been united, Ennahda may have failed to win the largest bloc of seats.


It is also important to note that many Tunisians did not vote in these elections. Despite initial reports of a 70 percent turnout, official data later confirmed that the real percentage had been much lower: only 52 percent (54.1 percent at home and 29.8 percent abroad). Considering these were Tunisia's first free elections, this figure is surprisingly low. Furthermore, in addition to voters who failed to show up at the polling booths, numerous voters cast blank or spoiled votes (these accounted for 2.3 percent and 3.6 percent of the votes, respectively).

The high percentage of abstentions and invalid votes may be due, it least in part, to ignorance on the part of citizens, many of whom had never voted before. …

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