The Islamist Al-Nahda recorded a resounding victory in the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly elections. Under the guidance of its previous two presidents, religion was banished from the public sphere. We asked four experts: What does this reveal about the importance of religion? What challenges remain in terms of the coalition government?
Religion played a considerable role in the election campaign, giving the moderate Islamist party, Al-Nahda, a significant edge over its competitors. The party won 90 out of 217 seats in the constituent assembly, meaning it will have the defining voice in writing the country’s new constitution, deciding on a new political system and appointing a new president and prime minister.
In a country that has been ruled by autocratic government for decades, religion was a language voters across the country could understand, trust and identify with. Some 81 political parties ran for election, but many people interviewed by Al Jazeera in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote had heard only of Al-Nahda.
It is important to stress that opinion polls in recent months have overwhelmingly identified economic development, not religion, as voters’ biggest concern. Part of Al-Nahda’s appeal lies undoubtedly in its ability to reach out to voters in marginalised areas that have long been ignored under both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali presidencies.
People in these areas are terrified of a return of the same disinterested, corrupt, political class, and distrust politicians in general. Al-Nadha represents the most wholehearted rejection of everything that has gone before, and, in their view, offers them the key to economic development.
Al-Nahda benefitted from a combination of things: it was a clearly identifiable alternative to the Ben Ali regime with a track record of having paid a heavy price for its opposition. It had serious name recognition and had the most organised campaign which reached out to the grassroots, for example involving door-to-door campaigning which other parties did not do as much. There were allegations of vote buying, with foreign money, and of other infractions of the campaign rules, but the elections themselves were impressively transparent. The final results are a fair reflection of voting preferences. However, it was significant that Al-Nahda had committed themselves to both coalition politics and the retention of the personal status code, so those who saw it as a reflection of identity politics could be reassured it would not entail a fundamentalist future. Committed liberals, however, remained very concerned about an Al-Nahda victory, mistrusting the concessions the party had made. So religion served to polarise the electorate but it was not the "all or nothing" determinant of the results that some say it was.
The challenges for a coalition government are firstly to hold the coalition together as pressure mounts for investigations into the allegations of vote-buying and as the debate over the terms of constitution gets started. Maintaining a common position on the role of Islam in the constitution will be critical, as will managing to reconcile the interests of private businesses on the one hand and populist demands for higher government spending and social justice. Most importantly, the government will need to make progress in reviving the economy quickly, bringing back the tourists, and reducing unemployment.
I have been very upset with all those who describe the Tunisian people as "stupid" because they voted for Islamists. I am very proud of the Tunisian people who queued for hours on Sunday 23 October, and who proved to the world for the first time that they are proud of their Arab Moslem identity and that they are not ready to trade it for any other alternative. Bourguiba, the first president, pushed the Tunisians to sacrifice their identity for progress and Ben Ali sequestered these Tunisian rights for fear of Islamic terrorism. For the first time the history of Tunisia, the citizens chosen for themselves and no-one has the right to demean their choice or to think that any elite has the right to impose any choice upon the people. All politicians who will listen to the choices of the people will survive, and others who think that they know better will lose in the future.
The election reveals religion still plays a major role in voter choice as well as in campaigning strategy. In a society where religiosity has been on the rise for at least a decade, the first free elections were bound to reflect that. But Nahda did not run only on the basis of its religious views; there was also public sympathy towards the party as well as a well-tuned and well financed campaign machine.
Despite this, Nahda did not win an outright majority and will have to work with partners if it were to govern in a stable and effective manner. But, already there are signs that losers and small winners alike are lining up in a block to oppose a Nahda government. I expect a period of uncertainty at the political level in the short term. The runner up, the Congress for the Republic, with its 30 seats holds the key to the next move.
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