With parliamentary elections scheduled for this Sunday, Tunisia – a small country unused to extensive English-language media coverage – is receiving a rare burst of press. This week's stories on the country have tended to reiterate two dominant narratives: (1) Tunisia is a country riven by a core ideological conflict between secularists and Islamists, and (2) disproportionate numbers of young men have left Tunisia to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, making Salafi jihadism a central focus of coverage on the country.
However, these issues bear surprisingly little correlation to the main problems on the ground in Tunisia – namely lack of economic improvement and stagnant progress on security sector and judicial reform. This trifecta of more deeply-rooted, institutional issues weighs heavily on Tunisia's transition, and presents a thornier set of challenges to the long-term growth of democratic governance in Tunisia. As Tunisians head to the polls this weekend, it is more frequently lack of progress on locally relevant, small-scale issues – rising unemployment and inflation, insufficient rubbish collection, and perceptions of rising corruption from local bureaucrats and security officials – that will shape their voting decisions.
Having been based in Tunisia for most of the past three years, I've watched as my friends' and neighbors' revolutionary expectations –idealistic in early-mid 2011 – withered in the face of nonexistent economic progress, slow institutional reform, and political infighting. Ennahda, the Islamist party that won a plurality in the October, 2011 elections, along with its center-left “troika” coalition partners CPR and Ettakatol – bore the brunt of blame for governmental failures. Parties failed to manage expectations, and made grand, nearly unachievable promises – to write a democratically representative, fresh constitution for the country in just one year, to tangibly improve the economy almost overnight, and to hold new legislative elections by October, 2012. Repeated delays in writing the constitution, paired with a laggard economy, two political assassinations, and lack of visible reforms at the municipal level (where police abuses, bureaucratic corruption, and inefficiency run rampant) all combined to make Tunisians increasingly cynical about the troika coalition and democracy in general.
Despite voters' cynicism, though, it is not at all certain if Nidaa Tounes, which bills itself as “l'alternatif” – the alternative to the disappointment of troika rule – will win a majority of votes on Sunday. Nidaa Tounes was formed in mid-2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87 year-old politician who served in various ministerial and diplomatic roles in the governments of presidents Habib Bourguiba (1956-87) and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011). Essebsi promised to unite liberals and leftists angered in the wake of Ennahda's October 2011 victory. His party, Nidaa Tounes – the 'Call for Tunisia' – cast itself as a big tent that would present a powerful front against Ennahda and its centrist coalition partners in the next parliamentary elections. They called for parties opposed to Ennahda to join them under an electoral front called “Ittihad min ejel Tunis” – “Union for the Sake of Tunisia” and swiftly gained ground in late 2012 and early 2013, winning supporters and constructing party offices across the country.
Despite these auspicious beginnings, today Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes – judging from recent polling in Tunisia– are running neck and neck. Instead of uniting the anti-Ennahda vote under a single, grand union, Nidaa Tounes has missed important opportunities to forge meaningful coalitions across the Tunisian left. Time and again, smaller socially liberal and left-wing parties have approached Nidaa to join forces, but have reported being put off by its leaders’ perceived unwillingness to include other voices and share power on party lists. A number of potential partners grew very disaffected when Nidaa decided to run candidates on its own, separate party lists rather than running with junior partners on shared lists under the banner of the Ittihad (Union for the Sake of Tunisia). Junior partners, like El-Masaar and Jebha Chaabia were left to fend for themselves, and important opportunities to cast a wide net were missed. Rumours of Nidaa Tounes providing a safe umbrella for old regime element, termed ‘tejemaa’ (RCD’ists, named after Ben Ali’s former party) in Tunisian Arabic, grew as Nidaa missed opportunities to retain former secular allies, like Hizb al-Joumhouri and Afeq Tounes – parties that ended up leaving the Nidaa Tounes union and are now running on their own lists.
While press headlines often frame Tunisia as a simplistic battleground between secularists and Islamists, this election demonstrates that the real stories in Tunisia are much broader. Power sharing, party organization, and coalition building – in addition to deep-seated voter cynicism owing to political disillusionment and economic dissatisfaction – will help determine how the vote breaks on Sunday.
Whatever the outcome, Enanhda and Nidaa Tounes are likely to be the two dominant parties – both with large percentages of the vote, but neither with enough votes to win a majority and independently form a government. This suggests that coalition building across lines of ideological, class, and historical grievance will be major themes in the post-election parliamentary process. Police impunity, lack of economic reform, corruption, and municipal governance will continue to present thorny challenges for Tunisia's transition, perhaps over and above regional threats, like ISIS, and ideological differences between secularists and Islamists. Though not necessarily as headline-grabbing as reports of Tunisians fighting in Syria, or feisty ideological battles, these deep-seated institutional challenges, and political baggage accrued in the years under Ben Ali's dictatorship, will throw up difficult obstacles for the next government.
How and whether Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes - the two dominant parties, each unlikely to win enough votes to obtain a majority in parliament – move into coalition with one another remains to be seen. Fortunately, Tunisians are battling out their disagreements through contested elections, and – despite ongoing marginalization of young people in most political parties—the overall political process remains inclusive enough to enable virtually all segments of Tunisian society to compete for power in elections. These are hard-won achievements, and represent a far more momentous story than the few thousand Tunisians who have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, or the distracting ideological conflicts that often dominate press headlines.