Tunisia Votes. And the number of parties keeps growing
Antonella Vicini 30 September 2011

There is an explosion of numbers in Tunisia, which is paired with the heady political atmosphere following January 14th. It is not coincidental that between January and August about 100 political parties were created or legalized. As far as the lists of candidates presented for the October 23rd elections go, Mourad Mouli, member of the Isie – Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections, emphasized the need to respect the principles of equality and alternating between men and women. Out of a total of 1,700 movements, women run only 5% of them. In the parties, the number is three out of 500. The leader of the Parti Tunisien is Meriem Mnaouar, Maya Jribi leads the PDP and the Mouvement démocratique de l’édification et de la réforme is led by Emna Mansour Karoui. This was another essential rule whose object it was to guarantee the maximum balance between the parties. Like the rule that prevents parties from campaigning before September 12th, to prevent the larger parties, who are stronger and have more money, from overshadowing the mass of lesser movements. The truth is that when faced with such a large number of movements, the voting public will be split, therefore to the advantage of larger parties.

When one speaks of larger parties in Tunisia nowadays, one is speaking of Ennahada. Hizb al-Nahda, the Islamic rebirth party was outlawed from 1989 until March 2011. The party’s newspaper Al-Fajr, was also banned and its editor-in-chief, Hamadi Jebali was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 1992. When its story is taken into consideration, the economic possibilities and its organization, it is not difficult to understand why it is one of the favourites in the elections, attracting not only the most conservative, but also moderates, the undecided and those who just want something different from the past. According to the lastest polls, Ennahada is in first place, followed by the Parti démocrate progressiste (PDP), by the Ettajdid Movement, by Forum démocratique pour le travail et les libertés (FDTL) and by the Mouvement des Démocrates Socialistes (MDS) all of which, except the first, were active during the Ben Ali regime. In the general panorama, the Parti communiste des ouvriers de Tunisie (PCOT) has 14 lists and on the far left the Parti communiste tunisien (PCT) has 9 lists, the Parti de la Réforme et du Développement Tunisie has 8 lists.

The numbers vary, but what immediately comes to mind is that the Islamic movement has a 20% lead over the other parties. One of the reasons for this is that it has no links with the previous regime, which is one of the most widespread fears among voters. The rules for avoiding this were dictated on the basis of levels involvement with the Ben Ali regime, and excluded those who had a role in the previous executive, the exception being for those who were not RCD party members (Article 15 of the Decree of March 10, 2011), party members with ten years’ seniority and those who requested Ben Ali’s candidature for the 2014 presidential elections (the mounachidine list). It is, however, difficult to immediately erase the weaving plots of over 20 years of power. The RCD, the party founded by Ben Ali in 1988 following Habib Bourghiba’s Neo Destour and the Parti socialiste destourine, beyond its various names, has ruled Tunisia for at least a half century. As of March, the RCD no longer exists, but those who were its members still do in various guises.

Speaking about these Tunisian ‘chameleons’, Abdel Haj Ali said, “The people who were banned were those in high-visibility roles and who had supported Ben Ali’s candidature for the 2014 elections. But it is a limited ban, because they can take part in politics, be party members, but are not allowed to run for office. They have delegated others to stand in their stead. They have, in any case, the possibility of winning, when you consider the money they have.” Haj Ali is one of the Union générale des étudiants de Tunisie activists and comes from the coastal town of Sousse that, like many of the tourist destinations, has been subjected to massive economic instability since the revolution. Together with other young people, for weeks he guarded the local tourist board office before they were removed by the police. He now finds himself, with a fellow citizen, deeply involved with the previous regime, leading a brand new party, which was formed in February. Mohamed Jegham, who was once minister of Tourism, minister of Commerce and minister of the Interior, leads the centrist Al Watan group. Then there is Kamel Morjen, a former minister of Foreign Affairs, who created the Al Moubadara in March. Hearing Abdel Haj Ali talk of the array of parties leaves little space for hope. Even Ennahda is no exception.

“Everyone in Tunisia knows that they have a significant budget, thanks to the money that is coming in from the nations of the Persian Gulf, especially Qatar, which has the same mentality. Their strategy is to give assistance to the poorest in order to buy their support. Just like the latest idea of organizing collective weddings, paid for by them. Ennahada’s leaders speak publicly of democracy and freedom for women, but most of them, particularly young people, are very undemocratic and conservative. Now, for example, they are creating another organization for right-wing university students to break our organization.”

During the presentation of its election program, its historic leader, Rashed Ghannouchi, emphasized that the Tunisian Islamic movement wants to build “a democratic regime based on Islamic values.”

It is an idea that is repeated in the party’s program, “For a Tunisia of Freedom, Justice and Development” a program that opens with the classic lines, “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.” Ghannouchi spoke of Arab-Muslim identity, of fighting corruption and unemployment, but also of equality between men and women. He has two women at the top of his party’s list of candidates.

Translated by Francesca Simmons