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.

Gallery: Election day arrives in Tunisia

Passive resistance or simple indifference, why are Tunisians avoiding voter registration?

I have written previously about the lackluster results of the Tunisian voter registration campaign. Despite the election authorities’ redoubling of their efforts in print, radio and television and desperate calls from Tunisian activists, the total number of voters registered totaled only 1.2 million out of over 7 million as of this Saturday, prompting elections authorities to prolong the registration period for an additional 12 days. (as of August 2, 2 million Tunisians have registered, about 25 percent) A low rate of voter registration has potentially devastating consequences for the elections and the transition in Tunisia.

Why Tunisians aren’t registering?

Several theories exist about why Tunisians are avoiding registering. While some have questioned the campaign tactics of the elections authority and the ignorance of Tunisians about the process, most have acknowledged that despite some initial delays the campaign to get voters registered has been well organized. On a recent trip outside of Tunis the print and radio ads were omnipresent, suggesting that the awareness campaign has not just been active in the capital.

One of the most common theories is that Tunisians tend to procrastinate and that it’s only natural for them to wait until the last minute to register. Given the feeble rate of registrations up to this date, this would create an extremely chaotic situation in the final hours of voter registration.

Another theory is that Tunisians are skeptical about the electoral authorities commitment to free and fair elections. Aljazeera’s Yasmine Ryan highlighted some of these fears in a recent report that showed the lackluster commitment of Tunisians consular officials in Paris to the voter registration process. This corresponds to what many Tunisians here in Tunis have expressed, that the process is flawed and that the elections will be stolen no matter what.

Yet another hypothesis is that Tunisians are adamantly against the holding of a constituent assembly, preferring instead a presidential and parliamentary elections. This theory, recently expressed in a controversial opinion piece on the Tunisian website BusinessNews Tunisia, posits that a constituent assembly will continue to leave the country mired in a transitional period, further aggravating the economic crisis and creating further rifts between Tunisians.

Could feeble registration derail the transition?

The truth is that the poor voter registration numbers are likely a combination of all of these theories. Despite the massive media campaign, Tunisians have no first-hand experience with free elections and may be confused about the necessity to register. The fear that the revolution will be (or already has been) stolen is commonly heard among Tunisians of all political stripes. Others are simply tired of politics and think that elections are another way that Tunisians will be divided against each other.

The consequences of Tunisian inaction have the potential to be the biggest setback yet in their transition to democracy. If a majority of Tunisians abstain from voting (or are prevented from voting because they are not properly registered), this will play into the hands of whichever party does not do well in the elections. The winning parties will be de-legitimized and the constituent assembly will likely face similar problems to those faced by the High Commission (Haute Instance) for the transition – which has been racked in recent weeks by dissensions, most notably from the popular Islamist party, Ennahdha.

Alternatively, a feeble registration rate could make politicians reconsider the elections altogether, either transforming them into proper presidential/elections or into a referendum. However, officials would still be faced with the problem of registering more voters.

The irony of the situation is that even the staunchest critics of the government recognize that voter registration is the key to beginning the true transition. Activists from all sides are dumbfounded by the inaction of their compatriots, who had previously expressed great enthusiasm for voting.

While the electoral commission has bought itself more time, registering 5 million Tunisians in the next 12 days will be extremely difficult, and a poor result could further destabilize the government. While the authorities will likely add electors to the list from the database of national identity cards, this has its drawbacks as well, with a greater risk of fraud (voter registration confirms the place of residence) and more chaos on voting day.

The situation today is both surprising and disturbing, especially given reports that of those registered, only 20 percent are women. The January 14 toppling of Ben Ali and the subsequent transition toward free elections (the first ever in Tunisia) represented a re-writing of the Tunisian social contract – the agreement between the government and the governed – one that would be based on participation and accountability.

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.

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

A Clash of Civilizations in Tunisia?

“…the meteoric rise of Ennahda…”

“…the polarization of Tunisia…”

“…the collapse of trust among the Tunisian political class…”

“…the foundations of consensus are crumbling…”

These quotes are from Marc Lynch’s article in Foreign Policy this week in which he surveys the rise of Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia. To read it, one might think that Tunisia was on the verge of a political breakdown. While Mr. Lynch makes some important observations, his argument would be vastly more credible if he would link what he perceives as the growing fissures in Tunisian society with the number one concern of Tunisians from all walks of life – the economy.

His article is an important one, and it goes far beyond the vitriol one often hears about the political process in Tunisia, but it also raises more questions than it answers.

What society do Tunisians want?

During his visit to Tunisia Lynch traveled extensively and engaged with key leaders of several political parties, particularly Ennahda. Documenting their major organizational efforts, including establishing offices in every province, traveling and meeting with Tunisians, and holding large political rallies, he outlines a party that is clearly reaching out and impressing a large number of Tunisians. He also states that other political parties are neither as well organized or as popular.

So, are other parties unpopular because of their platforms? Or are they unpopular because they are not organized – and thus simply unknown?

While stating that support for Ennahda has reached 30 percent, he acknowledges that Ennahda has not released a political platform. So where does this support come from? Has it hit its ceiling? Is it capable of becoming even more popular?

Lynch states that there is indifference or contempt for other political parties, but he does not explain where this comes from. There are parties here that are seen as relics from the old regime, there are communist parties, labor parties, capitalist parties. It is natural for a capitalist in the business world to strongly disagree with the communist party platform, and likewise a communist involved in union politics to have contempt for the capitalists.

The question is whether these differences can be overcome in order to write a new constitution that Tunisians will embrace. Consensus will not be made from agreements on political platforms, but rather, agreement on the terms of debating these platforms. It is unclear from his perspective that we have passed that point here in Tunisia.

What about the Economy?

It’s curious that Lynch does not broach the number one issue for Tunisians – the economy. In the surveys that have addresssed this, and as Lynch points out anecdotally, Tunisians are very concerned about their economic prospects. Tourism has declined dramatically and the country is mired in a slump that will be difficult to climb out of before the elections take place and there is a roadmap for the country – and investors. It would follow that the party that asserts itself as most effective to deal with the economy would have an advantage when Tunisians go to the polls in October.

It would be helpful if in the political debates Lynch engaged in here in Tunis he would have posed the question, how will your party get Tunisia working again? And does this message resonate with Tunisians? It seems to me that a party without a platform might be vulnerable in the coming elections.

Narrowly defining the debate

Unfortunately, political debate in Tunisia has become an echo chamber because of the rise of Ennahda, with no one debating anything but that. The truth is that while Ennahda is popular, with 30 percent support, the majority of the population do not support it.

Lynch states alarmingly that the foundations for consensus are crumbling. But without exploring  the attitudes of the 70 percent of Tunisians that support parties other than Ennahda, this is difficult to judge.

There is no doubt that the rise of Ennahda raises important and fascinating questions about the future of what has been a an authoritarian, secular society. But it is not the only question in Tunisia, and it is certainly not the sine qua non over which consensus on the democratic transition may be made.

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.