Many Tunisians were delighted last month when the interim government banned political ads in the run-up to historic elections on Oct. 23. But now one of the country’s leading parties is warning that the curb on advertising is swaying the election in favor of Islamists.
American officials have been cautiously optimistic about Tunisia’s chances of transitioning to democracy, and the country’s interim leaders have sought to allay U.S. fears about Islamist rule.
But the centrist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) says the ban has effectively muted proponents of liberal democracy in Tunisia while giving an edge to al-Nahda, the leading Islamist party, which polls show is now likely to capture the largest bloc of votes.
Over the weekend, PDP supporters launched an effort to circumvent the ban, placing a series of video advertisements on the Arabic-language cable news network al-Jazeera as well as on social networking sites. The ads, which do not advocate a particular party or candidate, warn of a grim future for Tunisia if Islamists take charge of the government.
The ad series, dubbed “The Day After,” features a dramatic portrayals of ordinary Tunisians struggling to adjust to life in a future Islamist-led Tunisia where political rights are curbed and businesses suffer from declining tourism. One of the actors portrays a professional woman who laments her diminished status and loss of her job.
“After they took power, they changed the laws. They decided that in the workplace, men would be favored over women,” the actress says. “I am a prisoner in my house.”
In an interview, PDP founder Ahmed Najib Chebbi complained that his party has struggled to find ways to communicate with voters, while the Islamists use the mosque as well as their own, well-established political and social networks.
“They have a lot of money, distribute gifts, are well-organized and use religion to achieve their goals,” Chebbi said. Meanwhile, for secular parties, “these restrictions prevent us from communicating with our citizens, of whom 50 percent are still undecided.”
Recent opinion polls show that roughly a quarter of committed voters prefer the Islamists, while the PDP is favored by between 10 percent and 14 percent, with the rest divided among nearly 80 smaller parties and hundreds of independent candidates. The elections scheduled for Oct. 23 will appoint 217 Tunisians to a Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution and appoint a government to succeed that of ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The ban on political advertising was spurred in part by concerns over massive ad purchases by Tunisian energy tycoon Slim Riahi in support of his party, the Free Patriotic Union. But the curbs have effectively silenced advocates of secular democracy by depriving them of a means of connecting with voters.
Al-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has sought to ease Tunisians’ fears about Islamist control, outlining a vision for a modern, pluralistic society that more resembles Turkey than Iran or Afghanistan. “We are against the imposition of the head scarf in the name of Islam,” he told al-Jazeera in a recent interview.
Chebbi, who has served as regional development minister under the interim government, scoffed at Ghannouchi’s assurances and warned that it’s not just Tunisia that stands to lose if Islamists gain power.
“Their victory here not only threatens personal liberties, but will prevent the integration of Tunisia into the world economy and destroy jobs,” he said.