Party of abstention wins the Tunisian elections

Party of abstention wins the Tunisian elections

Alessandro Scipione
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The low turnout in the Arab country's recent local government elections expresses both the disappointment with unfulfilled promises made after the Arab Spring of 2011 and a lack of confidence in local politics among Tunisians

The results of the first post-revolution local elections in Tunisia consolidate the only democracy to have survived the Arab Spring, despite the predicted low turnout. The Tunisian election machine worked well and voting was peaceful, except in a few isolated cases: which cannot be taken for granted in the fragile Tunisian context. The results of the elections have yet to be announced. However, going by the exit polls published by Sigma Consulting, the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement is in the lead with 27.5 percent of the votes cast, followed by the secular modernists of Nidaa Tounes with 22.5 percent, the left-wing coalition of the Popular Front with 5.3 percent and Attayar with 4.9 percent. The turnout among voters was very low, at just 33.7 percent. Only 1,796,154 of people entitled to vote went to the polls out of a total of 5,369,862 voters, resulting in an abstention rate of 66.3 percent. The biggest political force in the first elections is therefore the “abstention party” with 66.3 percent, followed by the success of the independents, most of them secular, who gained a total of 28-30 percent.

An evolving scenario ahead of the presidential elections in 2019

A fairly obvious outcome but one that gives food for thought. Firstly because the secular front is struggling to identify itself as a solid point of reference, which will require the leaders of Nidaa Tounes, first among them Hafedh Caid Essebsi, son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, to engage in an internal reflection ahead of the legislative and presidential elections in 2019. Secondly, the voting has strengthened the prime minister Youssef Chahed with a result that not only gives him more chances of staying in the saddle but also weakens the management of Essebsi junior’s party, the big loser in these elections, so much that the head of the government might even consider running for the presidential elections in 2019. Thirdly, Ennahda is confirmed as the best organized party by far, strengthened by its greater experience and local presence. The party won through by rejecting the "political Islam" label in favor of "Muslim democracy", a move probably inspired by the desire to avoid the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, now relegated to illegality. Many of these moves had been strongly contested within the party and in particular by younger members, who reproach the leadership for distancing itself from the Muslim identity and the original objectives of the 2011 uprising.

A potential first woman mayor for Tunis

Ennahda won the election in Tunis, which may now be administered by a female mayor for the first time in its history. Exit polls put Souad Abderrahim, head of the moderate Islamic movement Ennahda in Tunis, in the lead with 33.8 percent of the votes. To become mayor, the 54-year-old former pharmacist will have to win the confidence of the city council. “Being mayor of Tunis for a woman is a record for the country. I hope to be elected by the 60 council members after their first meeting. However things go, these elections are a triumph for the decentralization of power and it is an honor for me to be the first woman ‘sheikh of the Medina’. I dedicate my victory to all Tunisian women”. Souad Abderrahim who was born on December 16, 1964 in the port city of Sfax (about 270 km south of Tunis), doesn’t wear a veil and beat off another ten candidates, all men. A pharmacist by profession, and a former dissident under the Ben Ali regime, Abderrahim began her political activity after the revolution of January 14, 2011 and was an influential member of the Constituent Assembly (2011-2014).

Local governance, an experimental development for Tunis

The only drawback for the Islamic party of Sheikh Rashi Ghannoichi is the low voter turnout, which was undoubtedly affected by the failure to achieve the objectives of the "jasmine revolution" of 2011 and the disillusionment of young Tunisians "betrayed" by the Arab spring.
It would be a mistake, however, to confuse the local elections with the legislative, and especially the presidential, polls. It is important to consider that the Tunisian electorate remains unsure about how much significance they should give to local authorities, which are a relatively new development. Tunisian voters tend to identify politics with the President and, to a lesser extent, the government, giving local administrations little importance. The tangible impact of the elections will depend largely on the powers delegated to the elected bodies. If the election lays the groundwork for the emergence of strong local governance mechanisms, the situation for marginalized communities could improve, thus helping to stabilize the country's more depressed (and dangerous) areas. The "political" message of the election is aimed above all at Nidaa Tounes: voters have rejected the "family-run" party and, more generally, the political class. The success of the independents, who are mostly secular, confirms the erosion taking place within the secular front. It is unlikely, however, that an abstention on this scale will be repeated in 2019. It remains to be seen whether next year Nidaa Tounes will be able to put itself forward as a united front with the strength to counter a force like Ennahda, which could gain even more space.