What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha

For those who are following me on Twitter, you’ve probably sensed my indignation at the flock of reporters who have descended on Tunisia this week to cover the elections. About 90 percent of the stories filed so far are about Ennahdha. So how about another take on the elections?

First, the facts: Ennahdha, the Islamist party, has run an incredible ground game. I traveled across northern Tunisia last week and they were easily the most visible party. There is clearly lots of grassroots support and they are well organized, much more than any other party. But, the party never polled more than 40 percent in any poll I’ve see. In fact, mostly, their figures are about 25-30 percent. Given the voting system (proportional representation with last remainders), they will probably receive a slightly lower proportion of seats than their percentage of the vote. Whether or not that’s fair, they’re the rules of the game.

Against this reality, we have all the major newspapers (New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Le Monde, etc) running stories exclusively about Ennahdha. The usual questions come up, is the Arab world ready? is Tunisia ready? is the West ready? is Ennahdha telling the truth? can they be trusted?

These are fine questions to ask, but they conveniently ignore 75 percent of the population that is likely not to vote for Ennahdha! Let’s have a look today at these folks.

The PDP is probably the most widely known party in Tunisia outside Ennahdha. They have a good organization, and a lot of institutional support, but they have not been able to galvanize voters in the way Ennahdha has. A common complaint I hear is that they are the “usual politicians.” They are running the anti-Ennahdha campaign. They have said they oppose any coalition with Ennahdha and will look to lead a secular coalition. They have polled as high as 20 percent early in the campaign, but have not received that level of support in any recent poll. A lot of their support appears to have gone to Ettaktol.

Ettaktol (or FDTL, by its French acronym) is the main secular competitor to PDP. They surprised folks over the summer by polling in the double digits, overtaking PDP in some polls. Their platform is similar to PDP, but they have struck a more conciliatory note and have called on a national unity government, excluding no parties (including Ennahdha). This has been a key point in the last days of the campaign following a spat between the PDP and Ennahdha on forming a coalition.

A key to the election will be which party comes out ahead – PDP or Ettaktol. The latter could represent greater reconciliation, while the former would represent a rebuke to  Ennahdha. If either party polls greater than 20 percent it will be a real victory; under 10 percent would be a defeat.

While PDP and Ettaktol have taken the spotlight of secular parties, other parties do have solid grassroots support and could surprise on Sunday. The CPR, run by Moncef Marzouki, provokes strong reactions from Tunisians. He is outspoken, undoubtedly smart, and a shrewd politicians. In my experience, he’s a love him or hate him candidate, and only anecdotally, he  seems to garner a lot of support from young men (in the other major media narrative prior to the Islamists, these were the folks that started the revolution).

Afek is somewhat of a surprise as well. They have never polled very well, but they continue to work their ground game, even in places one would not expect a pro-business party to receive support. One of the big complaints of rural Tunisians I’ve heard is that no one comes to talk to them. Afek’s efforts to reach out may just surprise on the upside. If either of these parties receives more than 5 percent that will be a good showing and will position them more strongly in an eventual coalition.

The UPL is run by a successful business man and has good name recognition, thanks to a massive ad buy during the summer. I’ve witnessed UPL rallies that would be characterized as “astroturf” events in U.S. politics, meaning they stage their popular support. I would be surprised if the moves paid off in terms of number of seats.

Finally, there are the parties associated with former Ben Ali officials, el Watan and Moudabara. The latter is run by Kamel Morjane, who many suspected would take over for Ben Ali during his last days. He was seen as somewhat of an outsider to the regime, and not as corrupt as the other cabinet members. It is unclear how either of these parties would fit into a coalition, as most other parties have run on platforms that call on a complete break with the past. If they garner widespread support (above 5 percent), it could be interpreted in two ways – either as a call for a return to law and order, or as a wake-up call for the number of people who actually liked the former regime.

Finally, no polling has been conducted (as far as I can tell) on the Tunisians overseas. Of the 33 electoral districts, 6 are overseas. Over ten percent (1.1 million) of the Tunisian population lives abroad, mostly in Europe, in particular, France. Several smaller parties and independent candidates could do well in these overseas districts. It is assumed that the majority of electors would support secular parties, but this has not been backed up by polling data. It would be quite interesting, for example, if Ennahdha did well in France – most likely refocusing the results, to the pleasure of the French media, back on the Islamists in France.

These are just a few brief notes on the story one is unlikely to hear in the run up to the elections. There are lots of candidates, and lots of opinions in Tunisia. I salute any mainstream journalist who can show this side of Tunisia to the world. Three outlets are providing comprehensive coverage of the Tunisian elections in English, they are well worth a read: the GuardianAlJazeera, and Tunisia Live.

[Editorial note: Any commentary provided should not be construed as endorsement, see my comment on covering the elections .

This is my third article in a series of posts in the run up to the elections. See also, Will Tunisian Elections Really be Free and Fair? and Tunisians Get Ready to Rock the Vote.

6 thoughts on “What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha

  1. The issue you don’t mention that most of these polls are suspect, due to the huge regional variation in popularity makes and large number of those undecided or who are willing to vot for independents. One poll conducted in Tunis gave Ennahdha 22% while in Gabes almost 52% so the sample size in such a situation needs to be done by constituency, unfortuantley at the moment, the resources have not been expended on it. I believe the 30% of seats will be on the low side, especially since no body is counting the seepage away from the main parties towards independents and the huge undecided vote, who may vote for Ennahdha. A poll conducted by sigma did give the proportion of those close to Islamic politics as 45% while those close to secular politics as 47%. So the story is about a polorised election, where parties and independents have advertised themselves as eith pro or ant-Ennahdha, inadvertantly gving Ennahdha more coverage away from its traditional popular centres.

  2. I just spent one week in Tunisia and to be fair my impression was that Ennahdha was also locally the number one (and most polarizing) topic. It is not only the international media playing this game. Besides that it is a very effective strategy. Living in Switzerland I can tell you that the most polarizing ans successful party that dominates the discourse is not elected by 70% of the voters but there is always the impression it is all about them.

    But this only confirms that we should pay more attention to the less noisy parties in order to not play the game of the loud ones.

    P.S.: And I agree that Western media (and politicians) have an unhealthy obsession with islamists.

  3. Pingback: Top posts in 2011 – Pornography trumps all « A 21st Century Social Contract

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