Tunisia’s first municipal elections since the revolution ended this week. The vote suggests something positive about the country’s democratic transition, writes Faisal Al Yafai
Tunisian politics is deadlocked. That’s a good thing
Four years after Tunisia's Ennahda party lost a popular vote, it has returned to electoral success, in the country's latest election, which ended Sunday. That, at least, would be one way to understand this week's municipal elections, the first for Tunisia since the Arab uprisings that ousted long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In fact, Ennahda never went away. A closer reading of Tunisia's politics over the past four years shows that, while the country's parties have remained deadlocked, that is no bad thing for the country or its fledgling democracy. The lack of any particular political victors has served Tunisia well.
Back in 2014, Tunisia held both parliamentary and presidential elections, its first since the post-Ben Ali era election of 2011 swept Ennahda out of years of exile and into power. But the outcome of that election sidelined Ennahda, with the majority of seats taken by Nida Tounis, a secular coalition that controversially included members of Ben Ali's dissolved political party.
The 2014 parliamentary election was anxiously watched, inside and outside Tunisia. There was particular concern over how Ennahda would act. Would they extend their gains, perhaps completely dominating the parliament and sidelining their secular opponents? In the end, they were pushed into second place. A month later, in the run-up to the presidential elections, the party announced that they would not field a candidate at all.
One way to interpret that was that Ennahda – which still, even today, maintains an extraordinary ability to organise and mobilise supporters – had decided the public had had enough of it and retreated from front line politics. But not fielding a presidential candidate turned out to be shrewd politics, because it drew the political sting out of the election. The election did not turn into a contest between big ideas, as the parliamentary campaign had. Instead, it became about bread-and-butter political issues. In the end the new president was Beji Caid Essebsi, a veteran politician (he is now 91), who had served not only Ben Ali, but even Tunisia's first post-independence president Habib Bourguiba.
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The result has been four years of political compromise. The municipal elections this week were topped by Ennahda, with 27.5 per cent of the vote. But close behind were Nida Tounis, with 22.5 per cent. From the president through the parliament down to the municipal level, Tunisian politics is deadlocked. Put it like this: through three elections, there has never been more than 10 per cent between the winning party or candidate and the runner-up.
Unlike the years of Ben Ali, when presidential elections were routinely won by unaccountably large majorities, Tunisian politics today is governed by compromise, so that it is impossible for one party to emerge completely victorious.
That is an immensely positive thing for the country's democracy, though it is rarely commented upon.
Indeed, for the past three years, through two prime ministers, Ennahda and Nida Tounis have been governing in coalition.
Together they have overseen an austerity programme, significant social unrest and labour disputes, and the allocation of billions of dollars in overseas aid. They have allocated ministry positions between them and have clashed in parliament over the high cost of living. In other words, they have operated as two political parties in a democratic system.
Certainly, the two parties, and the smaller ones, are not always operating in the “best interests” of Tunisia, whatever they claim. They are engaged in cut-throat competition for votes as they lay out competing visions of society.
But for a fledgling democracy such as Tunisia's, being denied the possibility of a complete political victory by any one party is healthy for the political institutions and the political instincts of participants. No doubt, ardent supporters of either side yearn for their most maximalist positions. But when they are unable to get them and find their politicians compromising, it also widens the experience of politics. Sometimes, after all, good ideas can come from opponents.
In fact, the back and forth of Tunisian political success suggests that voters are changing their allegiances, rather than backing their preferred parties.
Half of those standing in this week's election were independents, backed by no major party. Together, those independents amassed 28 per cent of the vote, more, just, than Ennahda. That strongly suggests a preference for independents among Tunisians, a decline is respect for major parties and a decline in political tribalism. All of those trends are not necessarily bad for the democracy itself.
The idea of victor-takes-all politics is not a useful model for a complex country like Tunisia, both because of its political history and its parliamentary system. That Tunisia's elections keep swinging between two parties is part of what has kept the system functioning, even as the revolution meant rebuilding the institutions of state. In Tunisia's recent history there have been too few political victors and not enough political compromise. The last two elections suggest Tunisians want more of the latter and less of the former.