Will the Tunisian left return to authoritarian Bourguisme – more reactions on Tunisia’s Independence Day

As I wrote yesterday, the left celebrated Tunisia’s indpendence day on Tuesday with a peaceful celebration downtown. Much of the reporting afterward was self-congratulatory – the left had shown that it can mobilize! Some reactions from the left, however, were more critical. These criticisms focus on the fact that the left seems perpetually unable to get the support of popular classes – and that could lead to a return of authoritarianism.

Emna El Hammi writes:

If this celebration was primarily a celebration for all Tunisians, it is the left who was the chief representative, and with it clichés about the so-called westernized fringe of Tunisian society. For, once again, it was the left that was in the streets to defend against the Islamists, the values of democracy and freedoms. The left are the ones who struggle to unite the working class and find themselves in a grotesque image of a champagne socialist, westernized, bourgeois and not caring about their own hedonistic pleasures, and despising the poor.

She goes on to discuss how dangerous this image is for the left:

[These] events show once again that we are still struggling to get out of the identity debate that divides society in two….The left scarcely understand that if it wants to win legitimacy among Tunisians, especially those from the working class, it needs to get out of this identity debate and focus its policy on employment, social justice and social rights, which represent the real concerns of the population. It must also have a real desire to bring together Tunisian people around a common societal goal.

And that’s where we measure the threat of a possible Destourian [Bourguibiste] comeback, these ex-RCDists who have reconverted to the principles of Bourguiba, and seek to rebuild their popular legitimacy on the back of a revolution that they never sought. The reformation of former RCDists would be incredibly damaging to the left, they have a perfect knowledge of the [political] terrain and networks that have allowed them to feed the poor under Ben Ali. What is freedom or democracy when, in front, you are offered a job and a salary…

Bidules blog echoes El Hammi’s fears of a return to Bourguisme:

The Doustouriens [Bourguibists] the RCDists {Ben Alists]…A political force that dominated the country for 55 years. Today nobody talks about it almost as if it has no weight on the [political] scene. It is ignored, media appearances are rare. Are we going to underestimate this force? Tunisia is divided into two camps: the conservatives and modernists. Are the Doustouriens taking advantage of this bipolarity and this atmosphere of instability to prepare the BIG COMEBACK?…

…These forces may rise as a viable alternative following the failure of the Troika [the ruling coalition] economically and in the fight against corruption. In addition, errors in choosing the government leaders and cases of nepotism and favoritism led to the dismay of many Tunisians. Other democratic forces have been bogged down in ideological debates and issues over identity and struggle to move from being elitist parties to popular parties.

The idea of the former ruling party, refitted as a nationalist party based on authoritarian Bourguism, coming back into party may seem far off at this point. But recent polling by the International Republican Institute shows that former Bourguiba era politician and interim prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, is second only to Moncef Marzouki in popularity among Tunisians, with over 80 percent supporting him. On the other hand, links to the RCD are still toxic in Tunisia and there is nothing Ennahdha would like more than to be able to brand their opponents as remnants of the former regime.

Will Tunisian elections really be free and fair? From reality to conspiracy

This week I’m addressing some of the keys to success for the October 23 elections in Tunisia. See also, Tunisians get ready to rock the vote.

This Sunday I will witness Tunisian elections for the second time. What a change 12 years make! In 1999 Ben Ali and the RCD “rocked the vote” with one of the most lopsided election of his very lopsided presidency; officially, he garnered 99.45 percent of the vote with 95 percent turnout. It is certainly strange how 12 years later every Tunisian I meet seems to be voting for the first time.

Sunday’s elections will be the first time Tunisians will cast there ballots in free and fair elections. But what leads us to believe they will be fair? Many Tunisians are dubious about the outcome, wondering whether former RCDists, the U.S., France, the West, or the Gulf have predetermined the results.

To dissect this, let’s look at the facts:

As I write, elections observers are gathering steps away from me . International and national observers are learning about the processes to follow and the rules of observation from the Tunisian Elections Authority, ISIE. All of the proceedings are broadcast online for anyone around the world – or the country to observe. This follows an effort by the ISIE to completely reconstruct the electoral lists, which were completely unreliable under the former regime. Despite setbacks in the process, ISIE will proceed with voting by national identity cards, which are mandatory for Tunisians.

Following the registration drive, ISIE began the process of registering parties and ensuring that ballots correctly indicated the party lists for each district. They also began recruiting and training international and national elections observers. Observers from Arab countries, the European Union, Canada and the U.S. will be present. ISIE also sensitized the population to the observation missions and informed citizens of their roles in reporting any malfeasance. This work has been aided by numerous civil society organizations, such as Atide, which has worked with ISIE to coordinate messages about the importance of transparency in the electoral process. Other organizations are also educating voters about their rights, such as Nschoof, or I see in Tunisian.

ISIE and other organizations have undertaken a massive media campaign to ensure voters are aware of the electoral process. This has included text messaging to all mobile phone users and direct lines to ISIE staff. Voters can also ask questions on ISIE’s Facebook and Twitter feed.

Despite these efforts, Tunisians are anything but naive about electoral “irregularities.” Many think that the outcome has been predetermined. Press coverage of Ennahdha’s contacts with officials from the United States has led many to believe that the U.S. will back an Ennahdha government and may have even entered into a secret deal. The U.S. has officially maintained its neutrality and has met with many party leaders. Other theories suggest that Ennahdha will be allowed to receive a certain percentage of the vote, no higher, no lower than a certain mark. This would avoid a situation like that which occurred in Algeria in 1992 when the Islamist party was on its way to a landslide victory before the military intervened.

Tunisia’s history, and that of its neighbors, is a key reason for those who doubt the fairness of the coming elections. Another aspect is the similarity of so many of the parties messages. One of the most common complaints is that all of the parties have the same platform, and they all “talk like politicians.” With the exception of Ennahdha, no party has been able to reach ordinary Tunisians. This disconnect leads to alienation from voters, and subsequently to theories that the whole game is rigged. A similar phenomenon can be seen in many Western democracies.

While the evidence points to clean elections, perceptions are  as important as actions. Despite some reservations about the political games being played, most Tunisians I have spoken to on the subject are happy to cast their first free ballots.

New poll reveals upcoming electoral dangers

Over the last few weeks, I’ve raised the issue of the importance of political polling as we approach the October 23 elections. A new poll released this week raises more questions about the precarious political situation in Tunisia and how voters will respond in this Fall’s ballot. It also avoids key questions that would help us understand how the elections might turn and how political parties can reach out to voters.

Voter registration campaign from the independent elections committee

Key highlights

In an era of misinformation and lots of speculation, both in Tunisia and outside, the newIRI poll provides useful data on how Tunisians view their future (including their hopes and fears), the role of secularism/religion, and how Tunisians get their news. Particularly welcome is there publication of their methodology, which other polling firms here have declined to provide).

Overall, the poll showed widespread support for democracy, but their is an increasingly pessimistic attitude toward the future of the country and the political elite. A few points stand out:

  • Almost half (46%) of all Tunisians now believe their country is going in the wrong direction
  • Internal security and unemployment remain the critical issues for Tunisians
  • 43% believe that political parties are only interested in power
  • No individual or party received more than 7% support when Tunisians were asked their voting intentions
  • Only one party was identified by Tunisians when asked about their voting intentions (other responses identified party leaders)

The last two figures are key. Political parties are the key to the upcoming elections and probably the single most understood and undervalued element in the transition period in Tunisia. When voters go to the polls in October, they will be voting for their preferred parties, not individual candidates, within their voting district, a system called proportional list voting.

This proportional list system favors a multitude of parties gaining at least some seats. While it does not favor small parties, it doesn’t exclude them either. Parties with strong support will receive a proportional share, while those receiving fewer votes must meet a minimum threshold in order to gain a seat within each constituency.

With over 100 parties competing in the coming elections, even the most well-informed voter could be confused by the plethora of parties. And as I’ve written about previously this week, most parties identify themselves as centrist, meaning that their is very little differentiation among party platforms.

Consolidation is needed, but polls aren’t helping

Unless there is some serious consolidation among like minded parties, there is a great risk that the elections will be jeopardized by spreading votes too thinly across the many political parties, making the drafting of a new constitution and the day-to-day governance of the country nearly impossible.

Imagine a district with 10 seats where 10,000 votes are required in order to gain a seat. Then imagine that the current front runners, Ennahdha (Islamist) and PDP (center-left), each wins 2 seats. The remaining 6 seats will be given to the next closest parties receiving votes. If we use the current polling data, these seats could essentially be randomly assigned, as no other parties receive statistically significant support from Tunisian voters and there is no way to judge the political slant of the electorate (whether they are leaning right or left).

Under these circumstances, a party leader of a small party has an incentive to consolidate his base by joining forces with another smallish party. For those parties that are ideological, alliances should be fairly straightforward, unless there are big egos involved. Far left wing parties should work with other far left wing parties, etc.

However, most Tunisian parties are centrist. Under normal circumstances, these centrist parties would make some calculations for alliances based on support in various regions and by further differentiating based on ideology (i.e., center left parties join with center left parties, etc).

Unfortunately, once again, the polls fail us. We cannot find data that would point a party leader toward making a calculated choice. None of the polls I’ve examined point to regional variation across the country, nor do they look at how voters would like their elected leaders to solve their problems (ideology).

We simply do not know what side Tunisians fall on, left or right. This information gap makes alliance making extremely difficult and very risky for a political party.

As of now, most of these small parties are testing the waters with voters. They are reaching out to voters across the country and they are no doubt looking at enthusiasm for their positions (and their opponents) at rallies, on the newsstands, and online.

With three months to go before the election, the time to start making these alliances is now. Ramadan, which begins at the end of July, will make campaigning problematic until early September, at which point there will only be seven weeks to go before the election.

Perhaps, as this week’s poll points out, Tunisians are right, political parties are only looking out for their own interests. Or perhaps, they need more information from voters.

Also interesting about the IRI poll:

Their are several ambiguities in the poll. For example, while 54% of respondents approved of a secular government, 59% would like to see political parties that are moderately or strongly Islamist in the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, the percentage of Tunisians whose political opinions are influenced by religious leaders fell from 46% in March (the time of the previous survey), to 34% in May.

None of the public opinion polls conducted so far have included expatriate Tunisian voters, who will for the first time have the chance to vote from abroad.

Postscript: This is the second time I’ve looked closely at IRI data. Lest anyone think I’m only reading U.S. sponsored polls, I am not. However, with the exception Emhrod, no other polling firms have released their polling methodologies, that I know of. Polls by MediaScan, Sigma, and 3C have failed to publish methodologies and complete lists of questions. It’s possible the information I believe is lacking is in fact out there somewhere. If it is, please send it my way and I will happily revise.

Democracy promotion – Disliked at home and abroad

The Pew Research Center recently published new data on the decline of American support for democracy promotion (thanks to Democracy Digest for alerting to this data). According to the May 2011 poll, only 13 percent of Americans support democracy promotion efforts in contrast to almost one-third after 9/11.

The end of the RCD brought a political vacuum to Tunisian political parties

From Tunisia 2011

What is interesting from this data is the seeming convergence of American public opinion with skeptics here in the Arab world. More and more in the Tunisian press (and as the WSJ reports, in the Egyptian administration as well), critics are lashing out against the efforts of the Obama administration to promote democracy following the Arab Spring.

Why the skepticism?

From the Arab perspective, the root of these critiques is a skepticism of both American motives (not surprising), but also a skepticism that these kind of efforts can even work.

The recent trip of the Ennadha (the main Islamist party) spokesman Hamadi el-Jabali to Washington to meet with senior administration officials and members of Congress was seen as a tacit endorsement of the party in Tunisia.

While democracy promotion groups have been busy conducting relatively benign trainings on voter outreach, the mere mention of these high level meetings brings to mind the history of Western interference in Tunisia during the Ben Ali regime.

This idea of American king-making has long been associated with U.S. democracy promotion efforts, something that was certainly reinforced in the minds of both Arabs and in the U.S. through the failed democracy promotion efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does this mean for Tunisia?

The consequence of this mistrust of democracy promotion efforts is likely to be minimal in the U.S. – the amount of money spent is insignificant compared to, for example, air combat operations in Libya.

However, the skepticism could have important consequences in Tunisia (and other nascent Arab democracies) because internationally funded democracy promotion efforts generally benefit smaller parties – of which there are now over 100 in Tunisia.

While larger parties are often connected to international movements (such as labor, chambers of commerce, or religious groups), these small parties  are not well-organized or well-funded. The repression of the previous regime made sure that they are inexperienced at campaign management, outreach, and media relations – the exact things democracy promotion outfits like IRI and NDI target.

Skepticism toward foreign aid and intervention tends to be self-fulfilling. The less one is exposed to it, the more one is skeptical of its motives. This may prove to be the case for the American public as much as for the Tunisian electorate.

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.