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Middle East News
Tunisia Vote Tests Fragile Democracy
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 19 Dec 2014 19:50:53 EST
Supporters of frontrunner Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old veteran of previous regimes, attend a rally in Tunis on Friday, the last day of campaigning before the runoff election Sunday.
Supporters of frontrunner Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old veteran of previous regimes, attend a rally in Tunis on Friday, the last day of campaigning before the runoff election Sunday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

TUNIS—Tunisians will vote for their first freely elected president Sunday, a milestone for a nation that has eschewed much of the region’s violent political upheaval but also a test of its halting democratic transition.

The front-runner in the runoff election is Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old veteran of two autocratic regimes whose party, Nida Tunis, won a plurality in parliament in October on an anti-Islamist platform. Mr. Essebsi has faced an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Moncef Marzouki, a human-rights activist who was appointed interim president after longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was deposed in a popular revolt in 2011.

Mr. Essebsi had been tipped to win the first election round last month by a wide margin. But he secured just six points more than Mr. Marzouki—a surprise result that triggered Sunday’s runoff vote and a wave of negative campaigning. Mr. Essebsi has characterized his rival as an ineffective administrator with ties to radical Islamist elements, while Mr. Marzouki has accused Mr. Essebsi of being a relic of dictatorial eras with counterrevolutionary intentions.

Polls indicate Mr. Essebsi’s message of restoring economic prosperity and security has appealed to large swaths of the population. His expected victory, which would give his party control of two main branches of government, has raised fears of a return to a one-party system and a setback to Tunisia’s largely peaceful democratic transition.

“This particular moment in Tunisia is a very fragile one,” said Monica Marks, an Oxford University scholar based in Tunisia. “Especially for a country where the tree of governance has tended to lean so far towards one-man authoritarianism.”

Much also depends on Tunisia’s newly minted legislature and whether any of the country’s disparate political parties will be able to form a viable opposition.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party that dominated early legislative elections in 2011, secured 69 seats in the October parliamentary election—a strong second to Nida Tunis’s 86 seats out of 217. But Ennahda’s popularity has suffered a sharp decline during its stewardship of Tunisia in the nearly four years since Mr. Ben Ali fled, weakening its position. Party leaders have sounded a reconciliatory tone, indicating they would be eager to join a coalition government with the secular Nida Tunis.

“If we are invited by Nida Tunis, we’ll take it seriously and we’ll be happy to take part in the government,” said Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who has steered the party through relative calm in contrast to the violent political suppression of Islamist parties in Libya and Egypt. “But if we are the opposition, we will also play that role seriously.”

Many in Tunisia, though, have questioned Ennahda’s willingness to rally an effective opposition, despite heading the parliament’s important finance committee and having one of its members voted as deputy assembly speaker. Party opponents have said Ennahda’s precarious political position has driven it too close to the dominant Nida Tunis, a move that threatens to marginalize several smaller parties with a fraction of the parliamentary seats.

Ennahda has espoused a liberal economic policy founded on spurring investment and development that observers say hews closely to Nida Tunis’s vision. Parties that characterize themselves as closer to Tunisia’s revolutionary demands of social justice and overhauling social services say they are concerned that, despite the ideological gulf between Nida Tunis and Ennahda, their similar economic platforms could create an alliance that eliminates any effective opposition.

The smaller parties, which include socialist and leftist factions, have rejected allying with Ennahda on ideological grounds, saying they couldn’t ally with a party underpinned by religion. At the same time, they say they have deep reservations over Mr. Essebsi’s ties with former regimes.

“We’re being asked to choose between cholera and the plague,” said Fathi Chamekh, a parliamentarian with the Popular Front, a left-leaning party that won 15 seats and whose presidential candidate came in a distant third in November’s first round of voting.

Mr. Essebsi formed Nida Tunis in 2012 with the goal of challenging Ennahda’s control of Tunisia’s politics. But his party has indicated a willingness to work with the Islamist party—a departure from its parliamentary campaign slogans that tarred Ennahda as a party at odds with Tunisia’s cosmopolitan character.

“There is no way we can work on a basis of exclusion,” said Bochra Belhadj Hmida, a Nida Tunis parliamentarian. “If you respect the will of the people, you have to coexist with the party that was voted in.”

Mr. Ghannouchi, the Ennahda leader, was reluctant to say on which policy areas his party would clash with Mr. Essebsi, highlighting instead where the parties agree, namely the economy.

Analysts say a reluctance to play the role of an energetic opposition may preserve Ennahda’s position in politics, but it is likely to undermine the democratic reforms needed in Tunisia’s institutions after more than 50 years of successive autocratic regimes.

“The game of vociferous opposition is not a natural game for them to play,” Ms. Marks said of Ennahda. “They’re much more used to bargaining from a position of power. It’s going to be a very challenging period.”

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