Lessons from the Past for Tunisia’s 2019 Elections
By Ryan Craig
Tunisia’s 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections are just over ten months away. In the aftermath of the 2014 elections, two parties, Nidaa Tounes—a coalition of former regime insiders and liberal reformers—and the Islamist Ennahda movement used their combined seats to form a government. This was a fragile partnership from the onset and has since disintegrated.
Nearly five years later, Ennahda seems poised to perform well due to its enduring popularity, while Nidaa Tounes has seen its support steadily decline due in part to internal fractures. This has opened up space for new parties, such as the far-left Al-Jabha al-Shaabia, to capitalize on the strong showing for independents witnessed in the 2018 municipal elections.
Ennahda remains sturdy through three elections
Participation in the 2014 Tunisian parliamentary election was 69 percent, up more than 17 percent from the 2011 Constituent Assembly elections held after the revolution. However, the 2018 municipal elections saw participation plummet to 33.7 percent, reflecting popular discontent with the direction of the country, above all its depressed economic situation.
Ennahda won 37.04 percent of the vote in 2011, 27.79 percent in 2014, and 28.6 percent in 2018. While these numbers point to diminished support, when contrasted to how other parties have fared, they could be interrupted as a positive for the Ennahda movement. The Congress for the Republic (CPR) was runner up to Ennahda in 2011 with 8.71 percent of the vote, but then scored 2.14 percent in 2014, and played no notable part in the 2018 municipal elections. Meanwhile, Nidaa Tounes received 37.56 percent of the vote in 2014 (the party was not yet formed in 2011), then saw it support drop precipitously to 20.8 percent in 2018. Ennahda’s decrease in popularity from 2011 is comparatively mild, therefore—and the party also claimed the northern governorates of Ariana, Beja, Ben Arous, Bizerte, Mandouba, Siliana, Sousse, and Tunis 1 from Nidaa Tounes in the 2018 elections.
This means that Ennahda has a durable popular base, which has given the party over 27 percent of the vote in each election. No other party in Tunisia has been able to do the same. Nidaa Tounes came close, but the party has been rocked by internal disagreements over leadership, which points to significant turmoil in the coming year. Moreover, Ennahda’s infrastructure and base is visible in every corner of Tunisia, while representations of Nidaa Tounes’ popularity have been more elusive. The 37.56% of voters that cast their ballots for Nidaa Tounes in 2014 was not a true reflection of party support, as a large portion of that number came from voters who showed up to the polls to vote against Ennahda.
Space for a new party to rise
Nidaa Tounes has been riven by internal strife due to President Beji Caid Essebsi imposing his son as leader of the party, leading to accusations of nepotism and corruption. Several Nidaa Tounes members of parliament left the party, including Prime Minister Youssef Chahed who was ejected after he joined in the public criticism of Essebsi.
Chahed went on to form a new government with a coalition of reformist defectors from Nidaa Tounes and the Ennahda movement, and led a popular anti-corruption campaign last year. While Chahed’s popularity has likely taken a hit as his government has moved forward with IMF austerity policies, he could be a viable presidential candidate next year.
Tunisia’s smaller opposition parties could also mount a challenge to the governing coalition. Two such parties are al-Jabha al-Shaabia (the Popular Front) and the Free Patriotic Union (UPL). Al-Jabha al-Shaabia, a far-left party, is ideologically well-positioned to capitalize on anger at the IMF reforms. It also known to be antagonistic towards Ennahda, following the murders – in separate incidents – of coordinator Chokri Bliad and party leader Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, which some al-Jabha al-Shaabia leaders blamed on Ennahda. UPL’s potential comes from the influence and resources of its founder, businessman Slim Riahi.
In 2014, Tunisia's political parties and presidential candidates had not developed refined platforms. Nearly every party and presidential candidate ran versions of the same three-point platform: fighting terrorism, empowering the marginalized, and rebuilding the economy. Some were able to distinguish themselves by placing emphasis on one of the three points—Nidaa Tounes, for example, stressed fighting terrorism. Missing in all of this was a clear plan to execute these promises.
With four years of governance experience, Tunisia’s main parties look different in 2019. They will likely develop stronger and more refined platforms for the upcoming elections, and upstart parties will do the same to mount a challenge for power. Expect Ennahda to focus on job creation, Nidaa Tounes to double down on security, and al-Jabha al-Shaabia to push further towards a pure socialist platform.
As it stands now, Ennahda should be viewed as the favorite to win in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Beyond its sturdiness in Tunisia politics, Ennahda will likely seek to pull independent and undecided voters by including more non-party members and women at the top of their lists. Ennahda experimented with this approach in a limited manner in 2014, which likely represents the party’s best shot at gaining votes beyond its base.
The other parties to watch are UPL, al-Jabha al-Shaabia, and a Chahed-led party or coalition. Each of these will appeal to different demographics, but the strong showing for independents in 2018 (32.2 percent of the vote) demonstrates there is popular will for one or two new parties to control the future of Tunisia.
The largest question that remains is how big Nidaa Tounes will lose in 2019. Its 20.8 percent support in the 2018 municipal elections is likely not rock bottom. It must find an angle to stem its decline, or it could become politically irrelevant until 2024.