Tunisia’s elections last Sunday were won by the Islamist party Ennahda, in a contest with more than 80 political parties. Ennahda has claimed over 40 percent of the seats (90 of 217) for the constituent assembly. The remaining seats are divided among several major secular parties, minor parties that have performed well regionally, and (in a surprising turn of events) the Popular Petition party of wealthy Tunisian businessman Mohamed Hechim Hamdi (with nine percent of the seats). The victory can be attributed as much to its outreach methods as to the popularity of its message. Most political parties, the majority of which were established or legalized after January’s revolution, paid the price of disorganization and poor strategic considerations. In an election meant to level the political landscape, only Ennahda realized that voter outreach (rather than advertising) was the key to victory.
Ennahda’s triumph is in many ways a repudiation of 50 years of post-independence secularization. Campaigning that it would restore the place of Islam as an important part of Tunisia’s culture, Ennahda sent an intentionally vague religious message meant to appeal to the widest spectrum of voters. Religiously conservative supporters, many of whom were brutally repressed under Ben Ali, voted in favor of a stronger role for Islam in public life. Less conservative voters were attracted by their call of “traditional” values of hard work and honesty in opposition to the elite’s corruption. The party’s moderate stance toward the headscarf—neither required nor discriminated against—appealed to voters who came to resent the previous regimes’ emphasis on secular norms.
While the ability to appeal to a range of voters was an important component of their victory, many political parties had similar platforms and, to that end, Ennahda’s name recognition perhaps helped it to gain the most ground among undecided voters—as of early September, 40 percent of Tunisia’s voting population. And Ennahda is certainly the most well-known opposition party in the country; for three decades, Ben Ali’s government harassed their members, stripping them of their seats in parliament and throwing some in prison. And while other parties (most notably the Tunisian Communist Party) were similarly repressed, their support was never as popularly widespread. Other groups, such as human rights organizations, lacked name recognition given that they were only recently rebaptized after January as political parties; voters recognized leading secular critics of Ben Ali, such as Moncef Marzouki, Mustapha Ben Jafaar, or Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, but not necessarily the newly minted monikers of their respective parties.
This performance can also be attributed to a campaign that emphasized practical—yet crucial—voting information. While other parties distributed long political tracts explaining their platform, Ennahda’s campaign literature clarified where voters could find Ennahda’s logo and how to mark their choices on the ballot. This information was essential, as ballots did not identify the party leaders—they only listed party names and insignia. For those voters with limited literacy, logos were decisive. For example, the logo of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) capitalized on Marzouki’s trademark eyeglasses and many voters reported looking for eyeglasses on the ballot.
Above all else, Ennahda’s ground game assured their victory. The absence of critical media following 50 years of media suppression made it difficult for voters to acquire information on candidates and platforms, especially so many. A common refrain from voters was that all parties sounded the same in their advertisements. In the Ariana district, for example, over 90 political parties competed for eight seats in the constituent assembly (bringing the total candidates to 720). Under Tunisia’s electoral law for campaign advertising, each party spokesman had only 90 seconds for radio and three minutes for television to explain their platform and why voters should choose them. These messages were broadcast throughout the day in the run up to the elections. Campaign posters could be seen near the local school; each party was allowed to place two 12” x 18” posters in designated spaces that corresponded to their number on the ballots. No other advertising was permitted, though parties could hold rallies and hand out pamphlets.
Throughout the elections, the Independent Elections Commission (ISIE) made strategic decisions to bolster the legitimacy of the elections to all voters; to that end, it delayed the elections from July to October and banned campaign advertising in the final weeks. Many viewed these actions as a way of countering the unfair advantage that the Islamists seemed to have over other parties—particularly in the face of widespread rumors that the party was receiving foreign financing. The advertising ban was also intended to check the anticipated media campaigns of well-financed parties, such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the Free Patriotic Union (UPL). Ennahda, which led in every major public opinion poll conducted since March, condemned the delays that pushed the elections to October, but tellingly did not protest the ban on campaign advertising. Realizing that visibility through advertising was not incredibly powerful in this forcibly leveled playing field, Ennahda capitalized on grassroots campaigning and direct interaction with voters.
On a trip across northern Tunisia prior to the elections, one could be forgiven for not realizing that elections were a few days away. Despite the proliferation of political parties, most of the designated public spaces for campaign posters were empty. To learn about parties, prospective voters had to go by bus to the regional capital. While voters in the capital and in larger cities were able to attend rallies, hear the candidates, and ask questions, voters in rural areas were rarely so lucky. There was one party, though, that had all of its posters up and was distributing campaign literature in every town and village: Ennahda. From Cap Bon in the northeast to Tabarka in the northwest, Ennahda rallies and offices could be seen everywhere. In the run up to the elections it was still the most visible party in Tunisia.
The large secular parties’ reliance on advertising and reluctance to meet voters outside of the major cities made it difficult for undecided, rural voters, to put their confidence in them. The majority of Tunisians showed this weekend that Ennahda not only understood their preferences, but also that Tunisian voters cannot be taken for granted and should be reached out to directly. As the final votes are tallied, secular parties should reflect on the valuable lesson that was taught this weekend.
Erik Churchill is an independent consultant and freelance journalist living in Tunisia. His blog, A 21st Century Social Contract, covers Tunisian political transition and reform.
Correction 10/31/2011: An earlier version of this article stated that the ballots displayed candidates' names and their party insignia; the ballots had party names and insignia.