Considered to be the most successful among Arab countries in transition, Tunisia is enjoying favorable reporting, and as a result it has escaped serious scrutiny. While there is no doubt that Tunisia’s transition is proving easier than other countries’, it is still facing considerable political problems—in addition to its very serious economic challenges.
The major political problem continues to be the imbalance in the political spectrum that pits the well-organized, cohesive, Islamist Ennahda party against a large number of fragmented secular parties. These parties are acutely aware that their chances for electoral success are limited unless they manage to forge larger coalitions, but they have so far failed to create lasting groupings—let alone a grand secular alliance.In the meantime, the governing coalition composed of Ennahda, the secular and centrist Congress for the Republic, and secular and left-of-center Ettakatol, which was never more than a marriage of convenience among groups suspicious of each other, is showing signs of strain. While this does not mean that a crisis is imminent, it is a reminder of the difficulties and complications involved in even a successful transition.
The so-called troika controls a total of 138 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly. Ennahda, by far the largest party with 89 seats, could not govern without the support of the other two members.
The information provided here is not set in stone because the coalitions are quite unstable and subject to change. Indeed, the announcement on June 16 of the formation of a new political party called Nedaa Tunis, or the Call for Tunisia party (see below), calls into question whether these groupings, particularly the Social Democratic Path, will last.
An early statement issued by some secular parties that they would form a grand coalition to defeat Ennahda in the next parliamentary elections, which are now tentatively scheduled for March 20, 2013, proved overly optimistic. Far from forming an all-encompassing coalition, the parties are even struggling to build small alliances. So far, only two rather small coalitions of uncertain staying power have been formed:
The party considers itself center left, but its composition suggests that it is probably more on the center than on the left. It includes:
The fact that the proponents of this party have not been able to agree on a name does not inspire confidence in the staying power of the organization.
A left-of-center coalition, the Social Democratic Path controls few parliamentary seats. Its members are:
The as-yet-unnamed party and the Social Democratic Path have been discussing the possibility of merging into one organization or at least forming a coalition. Even if the merger took place, the new entity would only have 25 seats and would thus be behind the Congress for the Republic and the Popular Petition (discussed below) in size.
This possible new six-party coalition is portrayed in most discussions as social democratic or center left. In reality, it would be an ideological hybrid, including Ettajdid and the Tunisian Labor Party (formerly communist), the centrist Progressive Democratic Party, and right-of-center economic liberal parties like Afek Tounes and the Republican Party.
Even if the two coalitions survive or merge, the secular political spectrum will remain highly fragmented. In addition to the parties discussed here, which have gained seats in the Constituent Assembly, dozens of other parties have registered and exist at least nominally. The parties outside of coalitions include:
While Popular Petition is a sui generis party, difficult to classify ideologically, most of those that remain outside the coalitions have few seats in the assembly and have center or center-left profiles similar to those of the parties that are seeking to merge. The obstacles to their joining broader coalitions thus seem to be personalities and ambitions rather than ideology or a political calculus that they do not need allies. Such parties include:
A few other parties, however, would have trouble fitting into the emerging coalitions, including:
While the coalition-building efforts lag, new organizations are emerging, adding to the fragmentation. Only those that appear most likely to win seats in the next parliamentary elections are mentioned here:
Efforts have been under way for several months to establish a new party modeled on the now-dissolved, fiercely secular Neo Destour (the New Constitutional Liberal Party) of Habib Bourghiba, the first Tunisian president.
Proponents of the idea of reviving a Neo Destour–type party met on March 25, 2012, with Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as prime minister in the interim between the ouster of former president Ben Ali and the December 2011 elections. Discussed at the meeting, to which representatives from Ettajdid, Afek Tounes, and the Initiative were invited, was the possibility of creating a common front of secular parties under the Destourian banner.
The ruling troika promptly denounced the meeting as “traces of the old regime,” with one representative of the CPR saying “these people want to steal the Tunisian revolution.”
Nevertheless, on June 16, Essebsi announced the formation of Nedaa Tunis, or the Call for Tunisia party. Essebsi asserted that the new movement aims for a national consensus and to unify Tunisia’s “scattered” opposition parties. Ahmed Ibrahim—first secretary of Tunisia’s Ettajdid movement—asserted his party’s support for the new initiative and its commitment to work with Nedaa Tunis in the future. Constituent Assembly member Salma Bakkar, who belongs to the PDM, also said she would work with the new movement. It remains to be seen whether this party will contribute to unifying the opposition or add to its fragmentation.
It is probable that more parties will form before the next vote, and indeed dozens of parties still exist that are nominally registered but dormant. The Tunisian political spectrum so far is showing little sign of becoming less fragmented.
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.
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