The Ennahda’s electoral meeting in Douar Hichar on October 12 2014 in the suburbs of Tunis opened with a prayer swiftly followed by the audience singing the national anthem. As the local party’s officials and the candidate for the constituency spoke, it became clear that the national anthem was far more important than the prayer as speakers spent most of their time attempting to convince voters that a vote for Ennahda in the upcoming legislative elections would be a vote against the return of dictatorship – or at the least against the former ruling elites coming back to power through Nidaa Tounes – and in favour of democratic rule. In fact, the speakers emphasised how the party had exercised a considerable degree of national responsibility in order to keep the transition to democracy on track since the fall of the regime in 2011. Speakers focused on how much the party had given up in order to consolidate the democratic process and highlighted the sacrifices that were made – including supporting a technocratic national unity government – despite having secured over 40 per cent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly and representing by far the largest political force in the country.
The focus on the party’s responsible role in the transition is certainly in part self-serving. While it is true that Ennahd did compromise on a range of constitutional and institutional issues, its performance in government – albeit in a coalition – has been far from spectacular. Quite the opposite in fact, as the many socio-economic problems that Tunisia had have either remained unresolved or have worsened. Given that campaigning for re-election on the achievements of the party while in power was not an option, Ennahda decided to play a different card to convince a largely uninterested electorate to support it.
There are three ways in which the party is attempting to gather the necessary support that would help it achieve an electoral result it would consider a success. First, the party is quite keen to avoid making the sort of promises it did back in 2011 when its emphasis on the Turkish model of socio-economic development accompanied by a degree of tolerable conservatism seemed to suggest that Tunisia would quickly become an economic success like Turkey. This turned out not to be the case for all sorts of reasons – some of them completely disconnected from the choices the party made – and the party looked incompetent in office. Some voters will have inevitably felt stung by the inability of the party to deliver. Promising a much brighter future for all in the short-term is not what the campaign is about this time around and the party simply promises that an Ennahda-led government is an insurance against the return of authoritarian rule.
Second, the party avoids tackling issues that have a strong divisive ideological dimension, notably in the realm of individual rights. This is standard practice for al-Nahda and the emphasis is on dialogue with all other political forces, suggesting again that the party is about national responsibility. This aspect is quite important because since the fall of Ben Ali, ideological divisions between Islamists and seculars have negatively affected the transition at times. Most of the hysteria to be fair came from the secular left on the one side and from Salafi groups on the other and while both do not seem to enjoy widespread support, their activism has influenced the positioning of more centrist actors like Ennahda and the other government parties, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic.
Third, the party has reached out much more intensely to the West and in particular to the United States as the guarantor of democratic consolidation. Rachid Ghannouchi has toured the United states with the clear intention of reassuring US policy-makers about the party’s commitment to democracy and to of the war on terror. Ghannouchi also underlined how the socio-economic situation is driving extremism and called for increased investment in the country when three years ago the party had suggested that foreign investment should come from the Gulf rather than from the West. This change in discourse is certainly the product of the Egyptian military.
This emphasis on national responsibility has found confirmation in the decision of the party not to have a candidate in the presidential elections of November and December 2014. The logic behind the decision seems to be that the party wants to avoid winning both the legislative and the presidential elections and therefore controlling both branches at a time when the country needs unity to face both socio-economic and security challenges. The decision rests on the assumption that the other political actors and the international community would find it extremely problematic to accept a sweeping victory of Ennahda and this would inevitably trigger a confrontation that the party would not be able to win, plunging the country back into authoritarianism.