May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.

Parties fail to take advantage of political opening

The violence and disruptions of this past weekend, coupled with the most recent address by the Tunisian prime minister, offered an opportunity for political parties to come forward and reach out to voters. By all measures, they are failing the test.

As I noted earlier this week, Prime Minister Essebsi’s speech prompted all of the major political parties in Tunisia to take action. Some condemned his speech (Ennahdha), others lauded it (PDP, Akef). In the end, though, what could have been an opening, has turned into more infighting, and less attention to reaching out to the average Tunisian voter.

Ennahdha took the opportunity to fight back against the Prime Minister, insisting that the government had defiled religious establishments by looking for protesters within mosques in Menzel Bourguiba and Tunis. This played to their base, but it also showed that they were not ready to focus attention exclusively on the next two months of political campaigning and elections.

On the other hand, the centrist parties quickly adopted the narrative of the Prime Minister to condemn violence (which they were quick to subtly blame on religious extremists, and not elements close to the former regime). However, after an almost unanimous vote in the transitional council on political party organizations and campaign finance, the PDP quickly backed away from the vote and accused the chairman of the council of playing political games. This was seen as a cynical move to protect their corporate donations. Adding insult to injury, they walked away, walked back, and then insisted that the law is ok, but just needs to be amended.

The centrist parties organized a rally in central Tunis today, ostensibly against violence, that was mostly an opportunity to distinguish themselves from Ennahdha. The event was poorly attended (I guessed around 500, though other sources placed the turnout at about 3,000), given the number of parties represented.

I think that it is highly probably that this kind of game playing from all sides is one of the biggest reasons for the apathy for voter registration. As of today, less than 400,000 Tunisians have registered to vote out of 7 million voters. They have until August 2 to complete the process in order to vote in this fall’s elections. Certainly there are other reasons for the poor turnout, but the actions of the political parties this week have not helped earn the trust of Tunisian voters.

Too shy? Why Tunisian political parties need new media – and so do voters

Tunisia is witnessing an explosion in media. In the last 3 months there are over 100 new print publications, 12 new radio stations, including 6 in the capital, and authorization of several new television stations. This will have an important and positive impact on elections – giving Tunisians a real choice at the ballot box this October.

The elections, scheduled for October 16, will be the first chance for Tunisians to express their political preferences since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011. Tunisians will elect political parties to be part of a constitutional assembly, a sort of constitutional convention, which will write the new constitution and prepare the country for the election in 2012 of a new government.

In the run up to the elections, a more pluralistic media will have an impact on both political party decision-making and the ability for voters to make real choices.

With so many parties, confusion reigns

Since the fall of the regime, over 100 political parties have been added to the electoral register in Tunisia, creating a perception of freedom of choice, but also adding to the confusion of the post-revolutionary period. The number of parties is a reflection of the diverse views that have emerged over how the country should be governed and by whom. However, the lack of coherent platforms and inadequate political analysis of the various political parties by Tunisian media has made Tunisians more jaded and fearful of the upcoming elections.

The increase in media sources will be an opportunity to change that as candidates and parties will be required to clearly articulate their political platforms and reach out to an increasingly complex and well-informed electorate.

Until recently, post-revolutionary political parties could reach out to a few key media sources in order to disseminate their messages. In fact, the most common way to do this for most parties was to publish a press release that contained their main messages – though not necessarily their platform. State controlled newspapers would generally publish these without comparative analysis or commentary.

A frustrating and alienating experience – they’re all the same

For voters, the lack of political analysis has been frustrating. Without differentiation between party platforms, they all looked the same – and that looked a lot like the former regime. All of them wanted a “better” Tunisia, with economic opportunities for all, especially the young and unemployed, and unity for the country.

Sound familiar? It has to Tunisians. It sounds like the former regime, which stated the same goals for the last 23 years. Upon releasing these statements through the traditional media, their poll numbers didn’t move. Why? Simple, no one could tell them apart.

Exacerbating the problem was that not only did most parties not talk about their platforms; most parties actually had the same platform, with over half of the newly created parties identifying themselves as centrist parties. Meanwhile, with the exception of the Islamist party, Ennahda, there have been no political leaders who have emerged as identifiable, let alone liked by Tunisians, according to recent polls. And even then, in the most recent poll released by 3C, Ennahda only garnered 14 percent support, despite engaging in intense campaign activities over the last two months. The next closest party, the also well financed Parti Démocratique Progressiste, known by its French acronym PDP, received only 5 percent support. With over 100 parties competing, only two parties have over 5 percent support!?

While the traditional media have reported heavily on the political process, the lack of analysis has failed to inform voters about the real differences between parties. This has lead to a marked rise in apathy, witnessed both anecdotally, and in the aforementioned 3C poll, with over two-thirds of Tunisians undecided over which party to support.

Voters need a choice

One of the most discouraging aspects of the recent attention of Ennahda by both domestic and foreign media (a debate that has been focused on the role of Islam in Tunisia), has been that this has diverted attention away from a debate on issues Tunisians fought for this past January

The reasons behind the revolution have been well documented. The combination of poor economic prospects and the greed and theft of the state by the Ben Ali/Trabelsi clan infuriated average Tunisians. Today, Tunisians want economic freedom, jobs, security, and justice. The October elections should be a referendum on what party can give them that choice.

Ennahda has gained momentum in the polls through effective campaigning and clear differentiation from both the old-regime, under which it was banned. As a result, it has been able to build a base of support without clearly articulating positions on how it would address the problems Tunisians have identified. Unless voters get tired of platitudes or scared of the prospect of political Islam, Ennahda can continue to campaign as it has, though it may eventually hit a wall of support. (For further reading, see  Marc Lynch recent look at the politics behind the Ennahda campaign, see also my criticisms.)

Other parties face the very different challenge of establishing name recognition and building support for their platforms. While fringe parties, such as the Communist Party (PCOT) led by Hamma Hammami, have laid out clear ideological platforms, most parties in the center have failed to properly articulate their positions.

The rise in new media outlets creates an opportunity for an ambitious party to raise its profile with voters and articulate its message without the financial backing enjoyed by the PDP or Ennahda, which despite their substantial means lack broad-based support.

Media as a proxy for polling

I’ve written before (here and here) that the lack of issue polling in Tunisia has been a detriment to political analysis of the upcoming elections. In particular, it has opened the door to the debate over secularism that has so captured the attention of the foreign media. The lack of polls and subsequent analysis of voter attitudes has had a harmful impact on Tunisian political parties, who cannot use polls to judge whether their strategies or platforms are resonating with the public.

The rise in a diverse and critical media may create a proxy for issue-based polling that could help Tunisian parties better understand the political landscape and reach out to voters more effectively.

Competition created by the new media outlets, which are generally more outspoken than state controlled media, will be an opportunity for political strategists within political parties to reach out to different constituencies of the Tunisian electorate by expressing how their platform will address the needs of voters.

In a multi-party race with limited financial backing, this is an opportunity for smaller parties to raise their profile with voters and help reinforce grassroots support.

Much like voters around the world, Tunisians are tired of empty rhetoric and fruitless and unfocused debates. Let’s hope that the political parties in Tunisia will use these new media outlets to get out their messages and help shape a more productive political debate.

A note on social media platforms as a means for political debate: I have not written about electronic and/or social media, which has had an important impact on political discourse debate, and will certainly impact the coming elections. This is for two reasons. One, the average Tunisian does not get their information from the internet (only 33 percent do). Two, political parties have not used social media to present or defend their platforms to voters. Rather, one finds mostly user-generated commentary, not comprehensive analysis of political party platforms from the website’s editorial staff.

A note on Islamism and the securlar debate: I have decided not to take on the issue of secularism and the potential changes that could result from the election of Ennahda. This is an important issue, but Tunisians have not identified it as being the most important one. Perhaps the subject of a future post, I leave it aside at this point

Islamism in Tunisia? Polls avoiding the hard questions

An Islamic revolution in Tunisia just like Iran? The decline of women’s rights and the end of the liberal Tunisian model? If one believes the latest public opinion polls coming out of Tunisia showing the Islamist party, Ennadha, with a strong lead over its rivals, you might think Tunisia is on the path away from its secular beginnings.

As reported by by the French magazine Nouvel Observateur, the latest Sigma poll, a private polling firm based in Tunisia, shows Ennadha with almost 17% support. The next closest rival, the PDP, receives just under 10% support. Ennadha’s support jumped 2 percent since the May survey.

What are the implications for the October elections?

Unfortunately, there is not enough data to say, and the data that exists, can be interpreted in many different ways.

The Sigma survey asked participants whether they were optimistic about their country (they are). It asked them about their fears (mostly economic and security related). And it asked them to identify their political leaders. And that’s it.

This follows in the footsteps of a poll conducted in April by the International Republican Institute, an American democracy promotion organization funded largely by U.S. taxpayers. This poll similarly avoided asking in-depth questions of its participants that would provide answers toward what parties the electorate might support. It did, however, ask some questions about the role of religion in politics, and it asked participants to identify the major issues confronting Tunisia.

Taking all of these data points together, one could infer that survey respondents think that the Ennadha party represents the best way forward to address the major issues facing Tunisia – jobs and unemployment. But that would be a large leap that the data does not necessarily support. Hypothetically, it’s possible, that the 17% of voters that support Ennadha are really jazzed about the party’s stance on foreign direct investment (which 15 percent of voters identified as important in the IRI survey).

What’s missing is any data that would show why voters might be sympathetic to one party or another. Future polls could address this by asking participants to identify what a particular party stands for. This would allow us to see what kind of ceiling of support a particular party might have.

The other main finding from these surveys is that voters are still unfamiliar with most of the party leaders, and those they are familiar with, are not particularly popular. Ennadha leader Rached Ghannouchi is only supported by 8% of the latest survey’s participants and the only leader with double digit support is the octogenarian Beji Caid Essebsi, who is the leader of the country’s transition and not a member of any political party.

In other words, the polls show neither what political platforms Tunisians identify with nor the leaders they identify with – making it extremely difficult to infer real answers from them.

One final point, there has been a growing trend to criticize the polls that are being conducted here with a call that they be regulated. I expect that some of this has to do with the problems I have outlined above. However, I think that some of these calls are based on the misguided view that the government needs to continue to interfere with the political process, otherwise extreme elements might be brought to the scene. In my view, this is the wrong direction for the country. Rather, efforts should be redoubled in the press to emphasize only quality data by reputable firms.