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

3 thoughts on “Too shy? Why Tunisian political parties need new media – and so do voters

  1. Accurate analysis. I wonder why there aren’t more polls in the mainstream media. From my point of view, two factors could affect the impact of these new media:
    – Training of the journalists: Journalists in Tunisia are not trained for proper political analysis. They are not trained to ask the right questions. I doubt that the birth of new media will give them these skills. To train journalists is an ambitious project that international organizations should support and fund. This remains however a long term project.
    – These new radio stations have permits to broadcast only locally. For instance, Kalima (a notorious opposition webzine and webradio) will be able to broadcast only in Tunis so its voice will not reach remote underdeveloped areas of the south of Tunisia (for which Kalima has fought in the past).

    • Agreed that training could help. But I don’t think that’s all of it. Certain analysis can be quite decent. For example, I’ve read some very good analysis of problems in various localities or on some international issues involving Tunisia, such as emigration. With politics though, I think there are probably two things that make it difficult, 1) is inexperience covering domestic politics (this can be remedied with time); 2) is self-censorship (which can be remedied with courageous competition).

      Point very well taken on Kalima and its broadcast limits. I think that’s definitely an area to follow in the coming months, both the range of new broadcasts and their content.

  2. Pingback: New poll reveals upcoming electoral dangers « A 21st Century Social Contract

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