The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

Tunisia’s secular political parties have had a rough go of it. Thought to have been in a prime position to govern after Tunisia’s uprising, support quickly collapsed and splintered into various factions. Although the 9 major secular parties managed to garner about 30 percent of the popular vote in last October’s elections, only the two highest vote getters, the CPR with 8.7% of the vote and Ettaktol with 7%, decided to join the ruling coalition with Islamist party Ennahdha, which garnered 37% of the popular vote.

Despite a long period of self-reflection following their electoral defeat in October, the collapse of secular parties appears to continue unabated – this despite efforts to unify their efforts ahead of next year’s scheduled elections. Day after day newspapers report about the infighting, policy disagreements, lack of leadership, and lack of popular support. With less than a year to go until the elections (probably), let’s have a look at the parties and where they stand.

Congress for the Republic: The CPR came from out of nowhere in October to earn the second most seats in the Constituent Assembly. They ran on a populist agenda that stressed its willingness to work with whoever won – including the Islamists – and the charm of Moncef Marzouki. The party quickly ran into trouble, though, after Marzouki was named president of the republic in a deal that shared government positions between Ettaktol and Ennahdha. Marzouki was seen by some as abandoning his party in his pursuit for power. Without Marzouki holding things together, the party slowly broke down and finally split when its secretary general left the party at the beginning of May, taking with him a third of the parties delegates in the Assembly. They have subsequently former a new party, the Independent Democratic Congress. While Marzouki remains a popular figure according to (notoriously unreliable) polling data, the party itself may not be able to hold together, at issue is the extent to which the party should cooperate with Ennahdha.

Ettaktol: Like the CPR, Ettaktol ran its campaign on the grounds of working with Ennahdha. This earned it a place in the ruling coalition with the CPR and Ennahdha, and its secretary general the position of president of the Constituent Assembly. Seen at the time as a defeat, with Ennahdha leading the government and the CPR the presidency, Mustapha Ben Jafaar has maneuvered behind the scenes. Ettaktol suffered its first major blow in February, when thousands of its members resigned, including several assembly members. They were reportedly angry at Ben Jafaar’s non-democratic decision making and its cooperation with Ennahdha. Nevertheless, reports on the ground have shown that the party retains a structure that could lend itself to revival around election time. Nonetheless, Ben Jafaar’s low profile has not positioned the party as a leader – and polling data shows him far below his fellow troika partners Marzouki and prime minister Jebali, of the Ennahdha movement.

Progressive Democratic Party: The PDP is the biggest disaster among Tunisia’s secular parties. In January 2011, newspapers wondered whether party leader Ahmed Nejib Chebbi could be the next president of Tunisia – but the party’s extraordinarily poor performance in the elections (less than 4 percent of the vote) caused the party to rethink its approach. In subsequent months, the PDP has tried to regain its footing, but it does not seem to have found a formula that resonates. In March, Chebbi appeared at a major rally in Monastir with former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi and dozens of former officials of the previous dictatorships. He was savaged by the left for appearing to stand with authoritarian remnants of the rejected regime. In April, the party attempted to unify various factions of the left through a fusion with two other parties, the coalition fell apart less than three weeks later. As of today, the party appears as fractured as ever and there is virtually no structure outside of Tunisia’s major cities.

Bourguibist Parties: Bourguibist parties, as I’ve written about previously, have attempted to regain strength through both opposition to the laxist Islamist government and a platform that eschews liberal values but harkens back to the proud days of post-colonial Tunisia when President Bourguiba led the country into modernity. As I wrote at the time: “To the secularist left, Bourguibists represent a major threat to their support base. The left struggled in the last elections, unable to get popular support or shed their image as elitists – or God forbid – atheists. Destourians never had a problem relating to their base. Through populist rhetoric and strategic handouts, they were able to reach out to the common Tunisian. And most importantly, they were able to do so without coming across as out-of touch. Thus, the consolidation of Destourian parties may be an attractive pull and secularist parties may be coopted by them.” Despite my optimism for the movement, the reality is that the Destourians are led by an 86 year old man. Despite his popularity, he remains a figure of the past, not of the future of this young country.

Other parties: Various other secular parties continue to struggle gaining supporters. Pro-business party Afek abandoned its platform entirely as it merged with social democratic PDP. The PDM, most recently implicated in a voting scandal at the Constituent Assembly, remains a party of Tunisia’s rich suburbs, with virtually no reach beyond the French-speaking elite. The POCT, the Tunisian Communist Party, has been an exception to the general fragmentation and loss of support among Tunisians. Its leader, Hamma Hammami, who long suffered under the regime of Ben Ali, remains a key figure in Tunisia’s labor movement and the party seems to remain above the criticism of many secular parties as elitist or opportunistic. The class struggle truly continues in the POCT. Nevertheless, perceptions of communist parties in Tunisia, as in much of the Arab world (and America, might I add), remain marred by the association with atheism.

Obviously, the secular parties in Tunisia are fragmented and dispersed. So what -what does it matter? There are two major reasons this matters.

Firstly, the constitution has not yet set up the electoral system, we do not yet know if Tunisia will have a parliamentary or presidential system or how the voting will be structured (proportional representation, majoritarian, etc). One of the major criticisms of last year’s elections in Tunisia was the confusing choice Tunisian’s had between the 100+ parties on the ballot. The Constituent Assembly may very well look to change this in the constitution, favoring fewer parties by requiring seats to be awarded only after exceeding a certain threshold of votes. The longer smaller parties remain independent, the more difficult it will be for them if an electoral system is chosen that disfavors them.

Secondly, and most importantly, while secular parties are busy bickering in Tunis, the country is becoming a one party system. For every meeting between Afek and PDP in Tunis, Ennahdha is opening another office in a small town in the hinterlands. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi meets foreign dignitaries, even though he holds no official post in the government while opposition leaders struggle to fill school rooms with supporters.

Ennahdha is getting ready for the next 50 years of politics in Tunisia, building its infrastructure and its future leaders. In most cities you will find no other political offices besides Ennahdha. Tunisian voters in many areas will make their choices in the next elections having met no own from any other party. At a time when Tunisians are debating their very future, Tunisia’s secularists are not putting themselves at the table.

* (Update) A fundamental issue that I have not addressed in this analysis is the actual policies of secular parties and whether or not they resonate with Tunisian voters. This is obviously a crucial element to their success and the subject of a future post.

8 thoughts on “The collapse of Tunisia’s secular parties

  1. thanks you for the posting. quite accurate from what i can tell. biggest disappointment is marzouki who seems quite content to have the publicity and trappings of power with no real muscle… meanwhile a salafist party has been legalized and i read this morning of salafists trashing bars and a liquour store in sidi bouzid with the police looking on haplessly.

    • The Salafist issue is quite interesting – I’ve been traveling the past week, but intend to address some of the issues surrounding that in the coming days – stay tuned!

  2. I don’t disagree with your analysis of the opposition. Nevertheless, I would argue that although the opposition is somewhat weak and disjointed, the Enahda-led government has done such a bad job of governing that makes ordinary (i.e, not the partisan fanatics) Tunisians very reluctant to vote for it again. In other words, the Nahda won the elections last time because of its organization, but mainly because it did not engage in cultural war with the secular parties. This time around, the Nahda will have to stand on its record in government. The mature heads in the opposition should recognize this weakness in the Nahda, and unite their platforms around this issue. The other, rather obvious, weakness in Nhada is that it is not “Islamist” at all; it is a plain right-wing populist party that uses the Islamist aura as a marketing strategy. It is a politically reactionary, not religiously reactionary organization. Again, the onus on the opposition to point this out to the electorate.

    • Thanks, Khaled. I’m curious if you see any parties actually employing the strategy you describe (pointing out Ennahdha’s right-wing populism)? I see a lot of the mainstream secular parties simply responding to Ennahdha, without showing real alternatives.

  3. Pingback: Political party watch – updates on the state of Tunisia’s political parties | Kefteji

  4. Pingback: Political party update: Tunisian felloul step out, Communists rise, and Ennahdha stumbles | Kefteji

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