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.