On October 26, Tunisia will elect a new parliament, but the elections have different implications for the two main parties contesting the vote. For the more established Islamist party, Ennahda, the elections are only a step toward its long-term goal to solidify its standing as Tunisia’s central political actor. For the more recently formed secularist party, Nidaa Tounes, winning these elections is a short-term necessity, as they may be the only chance for the party—and Tunisia’s secularists and liberals—to remain politically viable.
The elections give Tunisia’s political parties a second chance to get right what they have failed to do since 2011.
Ennahda came to power in Tunisia’s first postrevolution election in October 2011. Although Ennahda was only one part of a governing coalition of three parties, referred to as the troika, many Tunisians blamed the party for the poor governance and the rise of extremism and insecurity during that period. As criticism increased—compounded by claims that the government had mishandled the aftermath of two high-profile political assassinations in 2013—and Tunisian politics lurched toward crisis, Ennahda’s leaders feared a forceful removal from power, as had happened in Egypt that summer. As a result, Ennahda agreed to enter into a national dialogue with the opposition’s secularists and liberals—including Nidaa Tounes—to put an end to the political impasse and deepening polarization. The party reached a compromise on the country’s new constitution, adopted on January 26, 2014, and agreed to step down in favor of a technocratic government.
In some respects this has given Tunisia a fresh start for the legislative elections scheduled for October 26, but it has also given both sides plenty of time to hone their objectives. This is where the divergence between the two sides becomes clear.
Ennahda Takes the Long View
Ennahda’s leadership seems to have internalized an important lesson from the catastrophic experience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which had prioritized a quick ascent to power over a long-term strategy to gain broad appeal and entrench itself in the political system—through efforts beyond just winning elections. Ennahda has focused its efforts on how to establish lasting political institutions. Its leaders understand that the party will benefit in the long run from promoting a viable pluralistic political system in which it makes use of its electoral popularity but remains insulated from an Egyptian-style reaction from the old security state. This type of strategy requires long-term thinking focused on building its support base and enhancing its political and governance credentials while embracing pluralistic electoral politics. As a result, Ennahda members believe that regardless of the results of the elections, the party will maintain a role in national politics.
This, however, requires Ennahda to avoid overreach by breaking its earlier promise not to field a candidate for the presidential election that will take place on November 23, nearly a month after the legislative vote. This concession was well considered given the largely symbolic role of the president. Not only will it be perceived as keeping its word and avoiding accusations that it is attempting to monopolize power, Ennahda will not actually lose much by staying out of the presidential election. After all, the party will have influence in the presidential election and will be able to endorse a consensus candidate to lessen the chance that its political opponents dominate the office. This decision conveys the extent to which the lesson learned in 2013 has resonated throughout the party, and it shows Ennahda’s confidence in its plan to establish a strong position in politics beyond the current electoral period.
Make or Break for Nidaa Tounes
Lacking the long-term confidence that Ennahda has, Nidaa Tounes is driven by its own lesson from Egypt: Islamist politics must be stopped before they embed themselves into the country’s political structure. In the party’s view, these elections may be the last opportunity to prevent this scenario.
Nidaa Tounes members have a deep suspicion of Islamists and their vision for Tunisia. But rather than advancing an inclusive vision that could draw support away from Ennahda over the long term, the party has adopted a paternalistic message in which they present themselves as the only ones capable of saving the country from incompetent governance, Islamism, and terrorism. This platform puts Nidaa Tounes in line with many of the positions of the former Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime—essentially promising a strong central state that takes a technocratic approach to governing—and it draws attention to the fact that many members are indeed associated with the former regime. This raises concerns about whether the party can walk the fine line between a strong, centralized government and an authoritarian, corrupt one.
But if Nidaa Tounes does not perform well in these elections, the country could be left with no united opposition to limit Ennahda’s power. Because Nidaa Tounes lacks a unifying and clear ideology beyond its broad center-left credentials, internal rifts abound, both ideological and practical. These became public this past summer, when disagreements over the composition of its electoral lists grew contentious. Yet even its current drive to win the elections is not necessarily based on a long-term effort to build a secular political party, but rather a desire to keep the Islamists out of power. If the party fails to accomplish this short-term goal in the coming elections, the various internal factions could struggle to decide what issue will hold the party together.
Despite this lack of long-term vision, Nidaa Tounes still has a significant chance to do well in the legislative elections. The party’s prospects have been boosted by the role it played during last year’s national dialogue negotiations. Furthermore, the perceived poor governance of the past three years has changed many Tunisians’ feelings about the former regime. Demand has increased for people with governance experience, which Nidaa Tounes does have. The party’s accomplishments—together with the changing perceptions of the old regime and those associated with it—give it a real chance.
These considerations will shape how the two parties handle the period after the election. Regardless of who wins, each side is likely to act in government in a way that is similar to its actions in the election: Ennahda will play the long game, and Nidaa Tounes will seek a short-term way to keep it in check. This wouldn’t be a bad outcome in the near future for Tunisia—it could be its own form of checks and balances—but over the long term, the secularists and liberals will remain without a strategy if they are reduced to constantly reacting to Ennahda.
A shorter version of this article appeared on The National on October 21.