It has long been a truism of democratic transitions that it is the second election, not the first, that determines whether a new democratic regime has been consolidated. Tunisia’s parliamentary election of Oct. 26 and Sunday’s presidential election, offer just such an event and, even more impressive, the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box. It’s more complicated than that, however, because of unresolved questions about the real nature of Nidaa Tunis and its ability to form a viable government.
The Nidaa Tunis party won a comfortable parliamentary victory in October, taking 85 out of 217 seats, and the governing Ennahda party accepted the results. Nidaa’s presidential candidate, Beji Caid Essebsi, is favored in the Nov. 23 presidential election, although it is not clear whether he will be able to avoid a runoff. Regardless of the outcome of that election, Nidaa has three major challenges to overcome: first, maintaining the cohesion of the party after elections; second, forming a government that answers the demands of its base but does not become paralyzed; and third, moving aggressively to deliver economic and social benefits to an impatient and frustrated Tunisian public. Its ability to respond to these challenges will go a long way toward determining whether the elections lead to genuine democratic consolidation.
Understanding these challenges requires a deeper reading of Nidaa’s electoral gains. Much of the initial reporting cast the election results as a victory of secular democracy over Islamism. With the experience of Egypt and Libya in the background, and general Western discomfort with Islamist parties, this is a tempting and compelling interpretation. But that would be a gross simplification and a misreading of the political dynamics at play.
Nidaa Tunis is led by Essebsi, an 88 year-old former minister from the era of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and senior statesman. For some, Essebsi represents the best of Tunisia’s achievements with deep experience in government, charisma, credibility and a non-ideological stance. To others, however, he embodies a return of the old regime and the ascendency of vested interests seeking to preserve their position, benefits and commercial monopolies. Given that the chants from the uprising that began in 2010 demanded an end to nepotism and corruption as well as the need for equal economic opportunity, some Tunisians are arguing that the Nidaa victory is a reversal of the youth-driven aims of the revolution and a setback for the democratic process.
Nidaa will have the first chance to form a government regardless of the outcome of the presidential vote. It will need to prove that it can respond to the demands of all Tunisians, not just protect the interests of the elite and former ruling party members. There are already questions about Nidaa’s track record related to democratic practices. According to an international expert familiar with these party structures, Nidaa has yet to hold internal party elections, does not have a transparent, decision-making process inside the party, and lacks a coherent, unifying vision. By way of comparison, Ennahda has a far more evolved party structure and internal consultative process, and has now twice demonstrated its willingness to hand over power peacefully. While both parties are still evolving, the anecdotal evidence challenges the notion that secularists will always be better democrats and Islamists are just biding their time to impose an authoritarian model.
Nidaa’s building of its electoral strategy upon capturing the largest number of supporters under its umbrella means it has an enormously unwieldy group of stakeholders that will need to be satisfied. Nidaa galvanized something perhaps more accurately described as an electoral bloc than a coherent party; it includes diverse and somewhat disparate streams across the political spectrum from the far left socialists to the far right nationalists who agreed only on the need to oust Ennahda. This included two of the most powerful special interest groups, the largest labor union that represents public employees (UGTT) and the employers union representing the largest business interests (UTICA), both of which helped lead the successful national dialogue. Without a unifying vision beyond an anti-Ennahda stance, Nidaa could collapse under pressure.
This internal division means Nidaa could have a tough challenge in forming a government. It won the most seats but falls far short of a majority and will therefore need to build a coalition or find sufficient parliamentary support to govern. Nidaa has four options, but each has a major downside: 1. Nidaa could join with Ennahda, the second largest bloc in parliament with 69 seats, which would provide a solid mandate in parliament; 2. Nidaa could sideline Ennahda and instead form a weak majority with the other smaller parties; 3. Nidaa could form a national unity government that would include representation from all parties or; 4. Nidaa could embrace the model of “cohabitation,” likely a technocratic government without official party affiliation.
The economic orientation of Nidaa and Ennahda are fairly close, and they would likely agree on key economic reforms that need to be implemented including liberalization of the banking sector, streamlining of business registration, tax reform that would address the informal economy, and revision of labor laws that limit ability of employers to hire and fire. Yet, Nidaa will surely face opposition from two powerful centers: the UGTT, which would likely oppose reform to labor protections, subsidy reform and tax reform; and UTICA, which could be expected to oppose reforms enhancing competitiveness that would erode its market share and profit margin. One member of Nidaa’s economic bureau noted that “Nidaa campaigned and won on its platform; now UGTT will have get on board with this program,” but confronting the powerful UGTT will not be an easy task. At the same time, other important parties such as the Popular Front (al-Jabha), which won the fourth highest number of seats with 15, would also fight to maintain social protections and subsidies. The constitution also mandates decentralization, which is desperately needed to bring more local decision-making authority to disadvantaged, interior areas of the country. However, this may also be opposed by core constituencies of Nidaa that gain from keeping development and investment dollars concentrated on the coastal areas.
Any accord with Ennahda will likely alienate those for whom antipathy toward the Islamists is the raison d’etre for Nidaa Tunis. Still, it is clear that many voters supported the party not necessarily as an indictment of Islamist politics, but rather a statement of discontent and frustration with the performance of the previous Ennahda-led government that was unable to deliver what it had promised and carried responsibility for the country’s most acute political crisis. Tunisians are nostalgic for the security and economic stability associated with the pre-2011 period, which enhanced Essebsi’s appeal. Many Tunisians voted for Ennahda in 2011 in part because they wanted to see something new, just as many cast their ballot in 2014 for Nidaa to turn the page on three very troublesome years.
Security and economic progress will be the key priorities for the new parliament and next government. While security threats are unpredictable, it will not be difficult to rally the country around its security institutions and push off needed security sector reform. What cannot be delayed, however, is economic growth and job creation that will only come with structural and fiscal reforms. To achieve this, Nidaa will have to balance many competing interests, even overcoming dissent among its own ranks that have yet to let go of the old model of a centralized state characterized by a narrow elite controlling the flow of information, resources and access.
Survey evidence shows that a plurality of voters who lent their support to Nidaa Tunis expect results. A weak coalition, or a government with strong opposition, will have an enormously difficult time pushing through critical reforms and advancing a clear economic agenda. According to the International Republican Institute’s September poll, 58 percent of respondents described the current economic situation in Tunisia as very bad, and a further 22 percent said somewhat bad. Furthermore, the lethargic pace of economic growth contributed to a 19-point increase (from 48 percent to 67 percent) in the percentage of people who think Tunisia is headed in the wrong direction, as compared with an April poll.
The fear among many Tunisians is that Nidaa Tunis simply won’t be able to form a government that will take bold, ambitious steps toward economic and administrative reform. A Tunisian political analyst noted that “the fear isn’t that Tunisia will fall off the cliff, rather that it will just stagnate.” The politics of satisfying coalition partners could cause complete paralysis and render the government simply incapable of building enough parliamentary support to pass painful, but necessary reforms and administrative restructuring.
Nidaa has a very difficult task ahead walking this tightrope. A presidential victory for Essebsi may give the party more leverage, but it will also make other actors more nervous about a Nidaa-dominated political environment. For now, party representatives have said they are waiting to see the outcome of the presidential election before engaging in the nitty-gritty of government formation, and it may be March or April 2015 before it comes to fruition. In the meantime, Tunisians are impatient for socioeconomic conditions to improve – something that will happen only once the new parliament, government and president assume their positions and provide a sense of stability and forward momentum. The gains from elections are real, but tenuous, and Tunisians will need continued international attention and economic support to capitalize on what they have already achieved.
Danya Greenfield is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.