Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Tunisia's party politics may be fractious, but its democracy remains robust

The strengths and weaknesses of the nation's parliamentary system have both been on prominent display

President Beji Caid Essebsi's ill health formed part of a busy 24 hours in Tunisian news. AFP
President Beji Caid Essebsi's ill health formed part of a busy 24 hours in Tunisian news. AFP

Tunisians gearing up for last weekend woke up to two dramatic pieces of news on Thursday. The first, that two suicide bombers had targeted police in the capital, Tunis, killing at least one and wounding several civilians. The second that the nation’s 92-year-old president was gravely ill – some initial reports even said that he was dead.

In years past, the order of those two reports would have been reversed. If Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had suddenly been taken ill, a contained terror attack would have paled in comparison to the political turmoil potentially unleashed by an ailing ruler.

However, the Tunisia of 2019 is not the Tunisia of 2009, when an authoritarian president suddenly falling ill would have been a national emergency – nor indeed, the Tunisia of 1987, when the illness of then president Habib Bourguiba precipitated a coup. Now the country is an emerging democracy, with multiple centres of power.

A dark day for the nation, then, but one that showed both the strengths and weaknesses of its political system.

Strengths, because the terror attack was almost shrugged off – both by citizens, who sounded defiant and swiftly ensured the capital returned to normal, and by politicians determined that the attack would not impact the vital tourist season.

Weaknesses, because it highlighted a division between the president and the prime minister that has dominated the last year, precipitated a current crisis and created uncertainty in the run-up to an election this winter that will chart a course to a new generation of political leaders.

On social media, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed took care to say he had visited President Beji Caid Essebsi and wished him a speedy recovery. A perfunctory expression of sympathy under normal circumstances, the message took on extra meaning because a clash between the two men has set off the most serious political crisis for the secular wing of Tunisia's politics since the revolution.

It was Mr Essebsi who, last summer, publicly withdrew his support for Mr Chahed and called on him to resign. He did not, and when the Islamist Ennahda party backed Mr Chahed, Mr Essebsi ended his governing Nidaa Tounes party's coalition with it, an alliance that had guided Tunisian politics for four years.

Since then, political jockeying has split Nidaa Tounes.

Elections at the end of this year will be vital because they will represent the passing of the political torch to a new generation

Elections at the end of this year – parliamentary in October and presidential the following month – will be vital because they will represent the passing of the political torch to a new generation. Mr Essebsi said in April that he does not intend to run for a second term and, while his party has not yet chosen an alternative presidential candidate, his sudden illness has almost definitely ended the uncertainty.

Who will claim that political mantle is tearing apart the secular wing of Tunisian politics. Nidaa Tounes is still split from a disastrous attempt in April to elect a new leader. On one side is a faction loyal to Mr Essebsi, which elected his son Hafedh Caid Essebsi as leader. On the other is a faction that elected a politician named Sofian Toubel. Months on, there is no sign of reconciliation between the two sides, even as the elections draw nearer.

It is very much the Essebsis who provoked the split: the president, in his attempt to muscle through the candidature of his son; his son, thanks to his imperious manner and deep unpopularity within the party; and together, via their dispute with Mr Chahed, a former member of Nidaa Tounes.

Mr Chahed, just a few weeks ago, was elected head of a new political party, Tahya Tounes. If both wings of Nidaa Tounes also field candidates, the secular vote could be split three ways.

Could Ennahda, still the largest party in the parliament – and, crucially, unified – come through the middle to claim the presidency? Perhaps. That would be the shortest route to the office, which Ennahda has never yet contested.

However, this may not happen, owing to other considerations.

At eight years old, Tunisia's transition to democracy is still recent. There has only ever been one presidential election. For Ennahda, which is still viewed with deep suspicion by secular voters, there is a concern that an outright victory could invite the kind of concerted political opposition that eventually toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On the other hand, facing the electorate and losing might invite the kind of retribution that the group suffered for years under Mr Ben Ali.

The quiet path is, therefore, the one Ennahda is most likely to take: seek to stage a strong showing in the parliamentary elections, which take place first, then throw its weight behind a presidential candidate, guaranteeing influence in the next government. Who it may back is one other calculation in Tunisia's rapidly shifting politics.

News of the attacks and the president's illness breaking in the same 24 hours has created ripples of concern, in Tunisia and abroad. But it also demonstrates that the nation's political system, while fledgling, is relatively robust. It is party politics that is going through significant upheaval, the wounds it is now exhibiting largely self inflicted, by a political class determined to maintain a hereditary role for itself.

Updated: July 2, 2019 01:52 PM

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