Continuing our series of election reports, we present a second post-election report on Sunday’s historic Tunisian elections from Professor Jason Brownlee of the University of Texas, Austin, the author of Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization. Brownlee, who was in Tunisia observing the elections, is currently co-authoring, with Andrew Reynolds and Tarek Masoud, a book that connects the Arab Spring to scholarship on revolutions, transitions from authoritarianism, and constitutional design.
On January 14, 2011 Tunisians ended the twenty-three year dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring. Their accomplishment on Sunday, October 23 capped the “Jasmine Revolution” and upped the ante for fellow Arabs aspiring to follow Tunisia’s example. Under rigorous supervision by the country’s higher electoral commission, voters in the semi-prosperous North African state thronged to the polls and curtailed the authoritarianism that had gripped their country since 1956. (Tunisia was ruled by Habib Bourguiba until 1987, when Ben Ali seized power). Whereas citizens in a half dozen Arab countries have launched popular uprisings this year, only Tunisians have dissolved a security state and vested authority in a sovereign elected body (the National Constituent Assembly, NCA).
As observers have quickly noted, Tunisia’s transition now appears deeper and more robust than the nearest regional analogue: Egypt. This year’s first free Arab vote took place on March 19, when eighteen million Egyptians voted on a set of eight amendments to the Egyptian Constitution. The referendum proceeded without violence or fraud, but it turned out to be an exercise in pseudo-democracy—the freest and fairest fake election in Egyptian history. Afterward the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces unilaterally altered an additional fifty-five constitutional articles while safeguarding the document’s most autocratic provisions. Election results also signaled the relative marginality of Egypt’s liberal activists, who vigorously opposed the motion on the ballot, but garnered less than one in four votes for their position Since March, Egypt’s junta has signaled it intends to retain as much power as possible, dimming hopes for real regime change.
When Egyptians were casting the initial ballots of the Arab Spring, Tunisians had already established a civilian-led process for creating the NCA and a new constitution. Unlike Egypt, post-independence Tunisia has never been a military society. Tunisians have benefited from the army’s neutrality during their uprising and in the post-Ben Ali period. Parties, syndicates, labor unions, students, and intellectuals have driven the reform process. By mid-April, they had agreed on the electoral rules that have produced what US observers describe as an exemplary election by global standards
Having “owned” the transition for the better part of a year, Tunisian politicians must now reckon with the electorate’s preferences, which dealt surprises to all involved. For a moment on Monday, Ennahda, an Islamic movement that likens itself to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) worried about the prospect of getting not 20-40% of seats, as most observers had forecast, but an actual majority. “”This is bad news if it’s true, remarked party spokesman Said Ferjani, who preferred Ennahda win a strong plurality (“Forty percent would be our golden number.”) and then form a coalition government for the duration of the NCA’s mandate. Conversely, the center-left Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP) reeled as results pointed to a distant finish behind other parties who had previously polled weaker. Two center-left parties, Congrès pour la République (CPR) and the Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés (Ettakatol), outperformed the PDP and were favored to hold top positions in an Ennahda-led national unity government.
Even at this early stage it is possible to venture some tentative explanations for Ennahda’s tour de force and the PDP’s disappointing showing. Most saliently, Ennahda made inroads during the preceding months that substantially expanded on its membership (comprised of returned exiles, released prisoners, and activists surfacing from years working underground). For many Tunisians, a vote for Ennahda was not a vote for Islamic government but for clean government. The movement’s experience as one of the groups that suffered most in the Ben Ali era gave it nearly unparalleled credibility. Scattered evidence reinforces the impression that large numbers of moderate voters saw Ennahda’s politics improving, rather than threatening, their way of life. “This morning I voted for Ennahda and this evening I am going to drink a few beers,” one young man told Reuters. Similarly, the driver my colleagues and I hired on Sunday told us he did not pray—but he had voted for Ennahda. (On the flipside, an ultra-traditionalist with whom I spoke said he had not voted, that he considered Ennahda members to be secularists, and that he instead supported the much more conservative Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for re-establishing the caliphate. Hence, Ennahda’s positions jibed with median voters and repelled some Tunisians on the fringes.)
Given the initial election results, these anecdotes suggest that anti-Ennahda rhetoric employed by rival parties, particularly the leftist Pôle Démocratique Moderniste (PDM) fell on deaf ears. Arguably, the PDM, PDP, and similar groups would have been better served by delivering a programmatic platform about why they were just as clean and uncorrupt as Ennahda, rather than an anti-faith discourse intended to frighten voters into supporting secular lists.
Of course, the shellacking dealt to Tunisian liberals and leftists came from more than just a faulty campaign strategy. Although Tunisia is the most prosperous country of North Africa and ranks as high-medium on the human development index, unemployment remains in the double digits and growth has slowed, as a result of falling tourism and the war in neighboring Libya. Votes for the NCA were therefore interwoven with economic concerns. On that score, the PDP and many of its ilk failed to connect with the electorate. Last but not least, Ennahda may have been far better organized that its rivals, more effective at translating decades of anti-authoritarian opposition into effective democratic mobilization. As numbers trickled in from around the country Sunday night, one consultant for the National Democratic Institute claimed that of all the Tunisian parties trained by NDI this year, Ennahda was the only one that implemented the Institute’s recommendations on campaigning and getting out the vote.
There is no past Middle East election quite like what Tunisia has produced. Whereas Algeria in 1991 and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2006 are natural points of reference, both cases were marred by the dominance of extra-electoral powers. A more instructive example can be found just outside the Arab World, in Turkey 2002, when the AKP won 34% of the national vote. Thanks to Tunisia’s current rules for allocating seats, Ennahda’s slightly stronger performance will translate into a smaller share in the assembly and, if current trends hold, a multi-party government. In short, the Tunisian 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections compare favorably with the region’s largest democracy and evince few parallels with Algeria and the PA. Moreover, while only four weeks separated the ousters of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the paths of Tunisia and Egypt have subsequently diverged and exhibit ever-widening contrasts, between popular sovereignty and military control.