Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1393, (10 - 16 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Ennahda victory in Tunisia

Last weekend’s local elections in Tunisia saw victory for the Islamist Ennahda Party, writes Kamel Abdallah

Ennahda victory in Tunisia
Ennahda victory in Tunisia

There was fierce competition between the secularist Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahda Party in Tunisia’s first municipal elections since 2011, and on Sunday evening Ennahda announced that it was ahead of its rival in polls seen as a major step towards bolstering the country’s democratic transformation.            

Nidaa Tounes, which won the 2014 presidential and general elections, conceded victory, having been badly impacted by the schism that affected the party in 2016.

The elections took place against the backdrop of mounting economic problems since the overthrow of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali seven years ago. The Islamist Party may also have benefited from a significantly lower turnout among young people, who complain of widespread corruption, high unemployment, and the failure of recent governments to offer adequate solutions to standard-of-living problems.

Many Tunisians had hoped that these elections would usher in a new generation of politicians who would have the chance to test themselves ahead of the general elections next year.

However, voter turnout was low, and according to the Tunisian Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE) only 796,154, or 33.7 per cent, of registered voters (approximately 5.3 million in a population of 11.4 million) went to the polls to choose among more than 57,000 candidates, many of them women and young people, running in 350 municipal districts.

The ISIE decided to postpone the elections in eight polling centres in Mdhila in the southwestern governorate of Gafsa because of mistakes in the election papers. The head of the ISIE said that a new date would be set soon.

On Sunday night, Nidaa Tounes leader and Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said on the party’s Facebook page that “the polling stations have now closed. I salute all Nidaa members who participated in the municipal elections up to the day of the ballot and express my esteem for their enormous efforts.”

“In spite of the low turnout, the grave infractions, and the splitting of the vote, Nidaa Tounes remains the major force protecting the political equilibrium, as will be confirmed by the preliminary results tonight and after the mayoral elections in which Nidaa Tounes will have a decisive say.”

Commenting on the low turnout, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said on television that this was “a negative sign and a powerful message. All those in the political arena must heed it and must work towards developing political discourse and what benefits the people.”

His remarks alluded to the failure of the country’s political parties to motivate voters in this landmark event that is seen as a crucial step in the process of decentralisation and the establishment of local rule as stipulated under the seventh chapter of the 2014 constitution.

Hafiz Caid Essebsi, son of the president and secretary-general of Nidaa Tounes, said that many reports from polling centres had indicated “a number of documented violations in various areas of the country that directly affect the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, especially in the light of the passivity of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections, which remained silent in the face of the breaches.”

In a statement on the party’s Facebook page, he added that “Nidaa Tounes, as it draws attention to the dangerous ramifications of these serious breaches, is surprised by the silence of the ISIE, as this will be detrimental to the credibility and legitimacy of the voting process and have grave consequences for the democratic process in Tunisia.”

Ennahda Party officials struck a different note. Congratulating “all those who took part in the success of the elections,” Ennahda spokesman Imed Khemiri said that “the results of the polls show that candidates who built their electoral programmes on striking at Ennahda, striking at the consensus, and striking at political stability did not win large portions of the vote and that the Tunisian people favour the pragmatic parties present in the electoral arena.”

Khemiri said that the preliminary returns indicated a “lead and a victory” for Ennahda, although the ISIE had yet to announce the final results when he made his remarks.

He described the elections as “a victory for both Ennahda and Nidaa, regardless of the results,” as “the consensus will continue” between the two major parties and there was not a danger of returning to the sharp polarisation that characterised the political climate in Tunisia in 2012 and 2013.

The electoral campaigns were not as energetic as those in the general elections in 2014. This was largely due to the country’s economic straits and the high level of dissatisfaction among young people, though it was also due to the lack of clarity concerning the new powers that Tunisian lawmakers have given the country’s municipal councils.

The new local assemblies law passed by parliament will grant extensive independent powers to municipal authorities in the management of local affairs for the first time, as these had once been highly centralised under the control of the ruling party.

In a statement broadcast after the polls closed, Fabio Castaldo, head of the EU Election Observation Mission in Tunisia, described the elections as “an important step towards stability and the full application of the constitution” and “a model for the Arab world”.

Some Western donor nations have pledged financial support for the municipal councils to enable them to set new projects into motion. The IMF and a number of Western and other governments are committed to helping Tunisia overcome its budgetary deficit and reduce its very high level of public spending.

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