Tunisia’s parliamentary elections beget a fractured assembly

By Will Marshall

October 30, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — In a major milestone for the Arab world’s sole democracy, Tunisian voters went to the polls on October 6 for the first parliamentary elections since 2014.

Preliminary results released by Tunisia’s independent electoral commission, known by the French acronym ISIE,  show that Ennahdha, a former Islamist party rebranded in 2016 as the “Muslim Democrats,” will retain its position as the largest bloc in Tunisia’s unicameral assembly. Ennahdha claimed 52 parlimentary seats. Qalb Tounes, or “Heart of Tunisia,” a newly constituted populist party headed by Tunisian media mogul Nabil Karoui, placed second with 38 seats.

The ISIE will confirm official results on November 13. In the meantime, preliminary results will be subject to appeal.

Disillusionment with the previous coalition government headed by Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha contributed to low voter turnout (ISIE reported 41% turnout compared with 60% in the 2014 elections) and a surge in support for new parties, such as Attayar, led by human rights activist Mohamed Abbou, which won 22 seats.

Mongi Dhaouadi, a Tunisian living in Washington D.C. with ties to Ennahdha, said that low turnout is attributable to the impression that the elections won’t be able to deliver improved outcomes. Many Tunisians, he added, believe the country’s politicians are incapable of curbing unemployment and rising prices or providing basic services.

“I, like many Tunisians, came out to tell those who are in charge that you have failed. We need new faces,” Dhaouadi said.

A controversial presidential election in the same month overshadowed the parliamentary results. In a  runoff vote held on October 13, Tunisians chose Kais Saied, a former constitutional lawyer, over Nabil Karoui, the media mogul behind the rise of Qalb Tounes. Karoui, who ran part of his presidential campaign from a pre-trial detention cell (he is accused of money laundering and tax fraud), was temporarily released on October 10 to be allowed to campaign ahead of the runoff. 

Saied’s victory, with 72% of the vote, was a blow to Karoui’s Qalb Tounes coalition, which is largely built around his anti-establishment appeal. Without Karoui in elected office, his party will need a strong leader in parliament who can unite the various factions of the fledgling party. 

Ennahdha, which called for its supporters to back Saied ahead of the runoff, said this week it would be willing to include the new president in talks on forming a new government. However, London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reports Ennahdha may move to name party leader Rached Ghannouchi prime minister without consulting Saied. 

The disintegration of the once-powerful Nidaa Tounes party — an amalgam of secularists, industrialists and former Ben Ali regime officials led by the late former Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi — contributed to the relative success of new parties such as Qalb Tounes and Tahya Tounes. Tahya Tounes is the party of current Prime Minister Yousef Chahed, ejected from Nidaa Tounes earlier this year after tensions arose with Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. The splintering of Nidaa Tounes also left the assembly highly fractured, with no single party receiving more than 20% of available parliamentary seats, complicating efforts to form a new coalition government.

Should the parties fail to form a coalition government, the widespread disillusionment Tunisians have with their democratic political system may be amplified, said Sharan Grewal, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.

“The parliament is incredibly fragmented…It will take at least four parties to come together to form the government, a tall order given that each of them have already publicly expressed their refusal to work with one another,” Grewal said in an email to the Observer. “There’s a real danger that the fractured parliament will feed into desires for a strong presidential system, which could pose a threat to democracy depending on who occupies that office.”

Tunisia, which underwent a bloodless transfer of power in 2011, has been described as a model for the Maghreb and wider Middle East region. Yet the country’s ongoing transition to democracy has faltered under the strain of a series of security crises and a stagnant economy. 

A pair of terror attacks in 2015 targeting foreigners hurt the country’s important tourism industry, which has only recently begun to rebound. Recent political unrest in Algeria and the ongoing chaos in Libya have contributed to regional instability that threatens to spill over into Tunisia.

On the economic front, the unemployment rate has hovered around 15% and inflation remains at 6.8% despite tighter fiscal and monetary controls in the first half of 2019. In particular, high youth unemployment has led to an exodus of university graduates toward Europe—exacerbating the country’s brain drain.

The prospect of an extended struggle in parliament to secure a coalition may distract Tunisian politicians from the task of strengthening its nascent democratic institutions. For instance, failure to form a coalition would further delay the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, Tunisia’s supreme court.

Once the ISIE announces official results in November, Ennahdha will have two months to name a prime minister and collect the 109 votes needed to form a new coalition government. Should they fail, the president will have an opportunity to secure a majority in the assembly. If both fail to create a coalition, the government will call for new elections.

Disclosure: Will Marshall worked as a communications consultant for the Ennahdha party in Washington D.C. from 2016-2019.

This article refers to ISIE’s latest results release on Oct. 9.