Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

So, what kind of coalition should Tunisia gather?

To function, a democracy needs both a government and a loyal opposition, writes Hussein Ibish.
Tunisian supporters of  Nidaa Tounes at a rally to support the party's leader Beji Caid Essebsi. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)
Tunisian supporters of Nidaa Tounes at a rally to support the party's leader Beji Caid Essebsi. (Fethi Belaid / AFP)

Last week’s parliamentary elections in Tunisia were widely hailed as a breakthrough in the quest for democracy in post-dictatorship Arab societies. Despite gloomy predictions, voter turnout was nearly 70 per cent. The voting was free, fair and devoid of violence and intimidation. And, in a first in the Arab world, the Islamist Ennahda party peacefully accepted defeat at the polls and congratulated Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes, whose party won 85 seats in the People’s Assembly compared to Ennahda’s 69.

The received wisdom now is that it is imperative for Tunisia’s future that the two main parties come together and form a national unity government. But there are significant arguments both for and against a Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition.

Arguments for such a coalition government uniting the two main Tunisian parties are powerful, but not overwhelming. It is said that if Nidaa Tounes were to form a government without the participation of Ennahda, too many Tunisians would be “excluded” from government. Ennahda consolidated a powerful presence in the south of the country. It’s then argued that a coalition without Ennahda would virtually disenfranchise the party’s significant national support base, and, especially, the south as a region.

But a parliamentary system doesn’t imply that the party that comes in second has an automatic right to be included in the formation of the government. Rather it is the largest party that has a right to put together a coalition of its choosing, and live with the consequences.

Neither the Ennahda constituency nor the south would be disenfranchised at all. Both would be represented in parliament, but in opposition rather than in government. This is participation in an important and honourable role, since there must and will always be an opposition.

It’s also argued that Nidaa Tounes would need Ennahda support to carry out the necessary reforms that Tunisia will require to stabilise both its economy and its security requirements.

Just because Ennahda might find itself outside the coalition doesn’t mean it has the right, or even the incentive, to sabotage essential national requirements. If it did, it would be acting as a disloyal opposition.

There’s every reason for Ennahda, or any other parliamentary party, to stand strongly by the principles of its manifesto and the wishes of its constituents. But would that include blocking necessary economic and security sector measures that are in the national interest of all Tunisians? To assume so is to think the worst of both Ennahda and the parliamentary system.

The urgency of the security situation was brought home by an attack on a bus carrying military personnel and their families near the Algerian border, killing four and injuring 11. It’s unjust to assume that, because they are not included in a coalition arrangement, Ennahda or any other Tunisian party wouldn’t want this kind of national security crisis to be successfully dealt with.

Besides, the alternatives facing Nidaa Tounes aren’t particularly more palatable than Ennahda. The Free Patriotic Union and the Popular Front, two other potential coalition partners, are unlikely to welcome a coalition with Nidaa Tounes, which they openly describe as the rebirth of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) – the party of the former dictatorships. Ennahda, by contrast, has gone out of its way to welcome the prospect of a coalition. And without Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes would need either the FPU or the PF to gain a majority.

But would Ennahda really want to be part of a coalition with Nidaa Tounes? They say they do, but these assertions haven’t been tested yet in negotiations. There’s every reason they might just as easily want to step back and watch Nidaa Tounes struggle with the difficult decisions, and likely failures, that lie ahead – especially if they have inoculated themselves from charges of cynicism or disloyalty by feigning great enthusiasm for coalition government before deliberately making it impossible.

And as for Nidaa Tounes, their eyes are squarely on the upcoming November 23 presidential election, in which their leader, Mr Essebsi, is considered the front-runner. However, in early September Ennahda announced it wouldn’t field a candidate for the presidency. But at that time the Islamists also said they were confident of a bigger victory in parliamentary elections than they won in 2011.

As a practical and legal matter, it may well be too late for Ennahda to change its mind, but having reluctantly agreed to a mixed presidential and parliamentary system – and having been defeated in parliamentary elections – the calculations of the party must be undergoing some rapid reconsideration. One serious consideration is that a spell in opposition could afford Ennahda a chance to reconsider its priorities, and possibly to formalise a long-developing split between factions that want to focus on preaching and other religious work exclusively and those that are committed to further engagement with Tunisia’s evolving new political system.

It could well be in the best interests of everyone, for the country’s two largest political parties to form a coalition government. But other options are legally and politically viable, for both the elections winners and losers. And Tunisia’s democracy has to be able to withstand the normal, orderly competition of parties in a parliament that has no majority party and that will therefore require a coming together of strange bedfellows of one kind or another.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on ­Palestine

Twitter: @Ibishblog