Nidaa Tounes (NT), Tunisia’s main secular party, emerged as the winner of the parliamentary elections over the Islamist Ennahda party, the leading political force in post-revolution Tunisia. Talks of coalitions and alliances began, and meanwhile everyone is carefully studying NT’s every move. Formed just two years ago, NT won 85 seats in the election for the new 217-member People’s Assembly, and Ennahda took 69 seats.
Looking at the next phase, there are two possible scenarios for government formation, one that includes a coalition with Ennahda and one without it. If NT forms a government without Ennhahda, it will turn to a collection of smaller parties to garner the 109-seats needed to hold a majority. If it opts for this scenario, this would exclude a large proportion of the Tunisian people, especially in the south, where Ennahda outperformed NT. Such exclusion risks deeper regional divisions in Tunisia leading to social unrest. If it chooses to keep Ennahda out, NT would need to enter into a coalition with smaller parties, including the Free Patriotic Union (UPL)—led by Slim Riahi, a millionaire football club owner and media mogul with no political experience—which won sixteen seats, the left-wing coalition of parties known as the Popular Front (Jabha Chaabia), which won fifteen seats, and the liberal Afek Tounes, which came in fifth place with eight seats.
Both the Popular Front and the UPL are unlikely to accept a coalition with NT. For the Popular Front, the coalition will only raise tension among its supporters, many of whom refuse to be affiliated with those of NT’s politicians who were leaders in Ben Ali’s former party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Such a coalition would lead to internal divisions within the Popular Front.
As for the UPL, its leader Slim Riahi, who is running for the presidential elections next month, will not accept a coalition with NT unless he becomes its main presidential candidate, a scenario that NT cannot accept because they are already backing Beji Caid Essebsi, the party’s leader, as their main candidate. In addition, a coalition composed of these three parties (NT, the UPL, and the Popular Front) would also mean NT must give up some ministerial portfolios, perhaps even major ones—NT may be able to accept this compromise, but not necessarily the UPL and Popular Front.
Excluding Ennahda, the second largest body representative in the parliament, is not in NT’s interest. If Ennahda chooses to be in the opposition, it will not make things easy for NT. Ennahda will be watching NT’s every move, especially if it thinks it can easily mobilize Tunisians against the necessary and hard reform measures the party would have to take to stabilize Tunisia’s economy and improve the country’s security. An alliance of leftist parties alone would lead to an unstable government. The disagreements and personal rivalries within the alliance (whether NT teams up with the UPL and Afek Tounes or with the Popular Front, Afek Tounes, and other leftist parties that won a seat or two in the elections, like Moubadara or al-Joumhouri ) are fundamental. These disputes would most probably become more prominent, resulting in a weak and divided government that would find it even more difficult to implement much-needed reform. This would exacerbate Tunisia’s economic and security issues and could increase the risk of another bout of social unrest.
The other scenario involves forming a national unity government that includes NT and Ennahda. Such a scenario would outrage many NT supporters who voted for it in the parliamentary elections not necessarily because they liked NT but because it was a vote against Ennahda.
For Ennahda itself, this scenario is not their ideal one either, as Ennahda leaders do not want to upset their supporters who believe that aligning themselves with NT is a betrayal of the revolution and the party’s own history. Likewise, this alliance will cost NT politically, causing internal conflicts that could lead to divisions.
However, many are beginning to believe that a national unity government is in both parties’ interest. For Ennahda, it is a way to minimize the repercussions of their electoral defeat and to make sure they still have a presence in the next government. From NT’s perspective, a coalition with a weakened Ennahda is preferable to having to deal with a fragmented alliance of quarrelsome secular parties, which would likely produce a diverse, unruly parliament.
It is in NT’s best interest to unite these political parties under the umbrella of a national unity government that would be in a strong position to implement necessary economic and security reforms. After the elections, foreign creditors—like the IMF and the United States—will continue to exert more pressure on authorities to correct the growing deficits in the budget and current account. Subsidy reform is likely to be a key initiative, along with a series of fiscal austerity measures. The next government will have to impose new taxes and continue slashing subsidies to trim the budget deficit—the kind of reforms demanded by international lenders and that require strong political capital. A national unity government that includes Ennahda would have sufficient political capital to implement these painful but necessary measures to achieve economic stability over the next few years.
And just as urgent as economic reforms, security issues are going to be a priority for the incoming government. NT will need significant Ennahda support to address the particularly daunting threat of Islamist militants. The challenge for NT and Ennahda will be to ensure enough internal support for a coalition, because only a national unity government will have a chance of tackling the challenges of the next phase.
Sana Ajmi is a Tunisian journalist and writer.