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Al-Nahda Leads in Tunisia Polls

A round-up of preliminary election results.
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Ezequiel Scagnetti

Ahead of official pronouncements expected later today, preliminary projections on the outcome of the Tunisian election have placed the moderate Islamist party Al-Nahda firmly in the lead – obtaining a large proportion of anywhere between 30 – 40% of the votes.

From moderate to radical?

Fears have mounted that the party, so often accused of embracing moderate rhetoric in the public sphere while preaching radicalism in mosques, will usher in an radically different era.

Al-Nahda have moved quickly to stem this sentiment, with two statements on the importance of maintaining economic relationships and respecting the equal rights of citizens ‘whatever their religion, their sex or their social status’. However, to understand the significance of the election is also to put these worries into perspective.

The result will earn them a large share of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly, whose mandate extends to writing a constitution and setting a timetable for further elections. However, it will not put them in a position of limitless power. They have spoken of a desire to emulate Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and achieve a balance between religion, democratic institutions, and liberal economics. Their allocation of the 217 available seats is important because they must not only form a coalition with at least one of the remaining centre/centre-left-leaning parties – Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic Party are both looking at 15-20% of the vote - but it also shows that without a majority, most of the country are not looking to strengthen the role of religion in society.

Changing numbers

Involvement in the election has been broadly positive, with the media celebrating a 90% turnout. Dr. Ihsan Alkhatib told Think Africa Press, ‘the high turnout means that the marginalised and the underprivileged are participating in the process.’ Yet before drawing conclusions on the level of populace’s political engagement, the statistics need to be put into context.

90% does not refer to the overall population but the 4.1 million who had registered in advance to vote. After complications with the registration process left many jaded, voting without registration was permitted on the day. Figures for these residual voters are not yet available. Mere weeks ago, many reports decried the alleged apathy of only 4.1 million registered voters. Until final figures are in, it is too early to speak decisively of such success.

Ben Ali’s legacy

Before the election, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) was widely tipped to do well, following al-Nahda as Tunisia's second biggest party. However, a poor showing has even left victory in party leader Nejib Chebbi’s home constituency in doubt. As one of the only legitimate parties under the Ben Ali regime, they might have suffered by association. Has Ben Ali proven to be one of the most decisive factors in this election? The success of the Congress for the Republic Party may militate in favour of this argument. Its leader, Moncef Marzouki, is a prominent human rights activist. Its platform is progressive, committed to the realisation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and built upon around civil liberties. Years of repression under Ben Ali’s dictatorship may have set the backdrop for this yearning. Al-Nahda’s success must be viewed in this wider context.  

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