As Tunisians prepare to hit the polls on 23 October 2011, the fate of North Africa may just rest in their hands as the country is expected to act as a litmus test for a war-torn region hungry for democracy. Despite optimism filling the air, there are already concerns that Tunisia’s experiment may end badly, as right-wing Islamist groups look to capitalise on the election. Tunisian Foreign minister Mouldi Kefi, for his part, has tried to downplay any anxiety, and on 28 September 2011, declared the country ready for the upcoming election. Tunisian citizens are also eager to dismiss foreign suspicions that they are not prepared for a functioning democracy, with most telling pollsters on 27 September 2011, that they are willing to put aside any “egocentric” demands in order to bring about what they believe is best for their country.

To them, the election cannot come soon enough. After decades of one party rule, the 23 October 2011 poll will be Tunisia’s first since the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, which sparked what has become known as the “Arab Spring”. On this historic day, Tunisians will have the opportunity to choose 218 members of a constituent assembly that will write the country’s new constitution, with nine of the seats reserved for representatives of Tunisians living abroad. Although Tunisians may feel overwhelmed with the sheer number of candidates to choose from-nearly 10,000 representatives from more than 100 parties have been approved to run-it looks as though the same old ideological fault line is forming within the parties, with the Islamist al Nahda Party on one side, and the democratic/secular side on the other, led by the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) along with about four other groups. Although these two parties are currently dominating the political landscape, other groups are also looking to make an impact. Groups such as the Free Patriotic Union and Afek Tunes are also seeking influence. In a wide political field, each of the following parties is projected to make an impact on the newly free Tunisia and as such, investors and business personnel are advised to keep an eye on the election situation.


The most dominant political force right now is the al Nahda Party, a right-wing Islamist group led by Rached al Ghannouchi. This group is ringing a lot of alarm bells as many analysts predict it will have negative repercussions on Tunisia’s economic and human rights prospects. Nevertheless, the party is considered to be Tunisia’s most popular group, with polls conducted from 07 – 09 September 2011, showing that al Nahda had 22.8% of the vote. Although not much is known about the group’s platforms, economically the party is said to support a leftist policy, favouring equality over growth. Additionally, there are concerns that the al Nahda Party may isolate itself further from the West in the wake of the Arab Spring. Although the al Nahda Party is expected to continue Tunisia’s historically strong economic ties to Europe, al Ghannouchi is said to have an uneasy relationship with the region, having criticised a number of its leaders for supporting Ben Ali. Still, despite Ghannouchi‘s frustrations with the EU, the political leader has said that the relationship between Europe and Tunisia will not end in the foreseeable future. However, Ghannouchi has pointed out that a greater level of balance will be needed going forward, adding that relations must be built on mutual respect.


On the other side of the political spectrum, rests the secular camp, which is led by the PDP. Established in 1983, the PDP later gained legal recognition in 1988, and as of late September 2011, the group had 10.9% of the vote. Currently the party has no members in the Tunisian Parliament and has frequently complained of police harassment. This has of course led to suspicions of a future Tunisian Government being dominated by the Islamist al Nahda Party. Tunisia’s PDP founder, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, echoed these concerns, saying that he hopes his party will overshadow the al Nahda Party, which he accused of pushing Tunisia towards an ideologically and religiously-driven state. The PDP is still looking to capitalise economically in a country with a 19% unemployment rate (up from 14% last year), by pushing for more reforms and job creation. The group also promises increased public investment, assistance for small businesses, and a doubling in foreign investment through free trade arrangements. Additionally, the PDP is calling for “fair” tax through the establishment of a single VAT system, and a raise in the minimum salary to 308 dinars a month (US$216) from 286 (US$201). Chebbi, who said he does not exclude the possibility of running for president of Tunisia in the future, also wants a constitutional system in which the president is elected for a five-year mandate renewable only once, and where dissolving parliament is impossible. Despite the PDP’s popularity within some circles, or rather because of it, the party is being investigated along with the up and coming Free Patriotic Union (UPL), as well as the local television station, Nessma, for ignoring Tunisia’s electoral commission decision to ban political advertising earlier in September 2011. However, as of 28 September 2011, it was reported that the PDP was continuing its media campaign.


Along with the al Nahda Party and PDP, another group making a huge splash is the UPL. Although not much is currently known about the group’s economic, political and/or religious agenda, the cash-rich UPL is rapidly climbing in the polls after thirty-nine-year-old businessman and founder, Slim Riahi, embarked on an intense media campaign in July 2011. Riahi, who made his fortune in oil and real estate in Libya, where he grew up as an expatriate, was criticised for his tactics, which included posters showing five clasped hands and the slogan: “Let’s unite”. Tunisia’s electoral commission subsequently banned political advertising earlier in September 2011, saying that it wanted to promote a level playing field between large and small parties. The UPL, along with the PDP, challenged the legality of the ban, with the UPL ending its media campaign pending the ruling. Despite this, UPL’s strong media campaign proved successful and by early September 2011, the group was said to be the third most recognisable party. Yet, another opinion poll suggested that only 3.5% of those surveyed said they had heard of UPL. Pollsters believe that although Riahi is not standing for election himself, his youth compared with other party leaders is a vote getter. As it stands, the party has 4.1% of the vote.


Another group looking to steal the spotlight is Afak Tounes, a centre-right party which has a lofty goal of eradicating poverty within five years. Despite such intentions, and being probably the most business-friendly of the bunch, the group has not gone down well at home, as it still uses symbols related to ousted Ben Ali’s former secular ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Also known as ‘Afek Tunes’, the group purport themselves to be “a new party that emerged after December 17, 2010″ and that “its policies are economic and social“, even though 60% of its founders are Tunisian businessmen living abroad. The party aims to ensure the separation of powers and work towards the integration of Tunisia within the Maghreb. Economically, the group wants to attract foreign direct investment by creating a more transparent business environment, as well as provide funding for small companies. The group says it believes in the separation of religion and state, however, it believes Islam should remain of highest importance. The party also aims to protect freedom of expression, association, worship, as well as freedom of opinion. However, Afak Tounes is expected to not make any dent in the upcoming October 2011 elections, due to their perceived ties to the RCD and currently holds 1.3% of the vote.


Overall, the heavy-hitter appears to be Ghannouchi’s al Nahda Party, which leads the polls with more than 20% of the vote. The group will have to share its power among other political groups despite the fact that this group is slated to have the biggest economic, social and religious impact on Tunisia. In the end, though, the game could change, as at least half the population as of 28 September 2011, is still undecided. Even if the al Nahda Party wins, most reports indicate that extensive trade ties between Tunisia and the EU will continue. Investors and businesses should still proceed with caution as a degree of uncertainty remains.

(Photo Credit: World Bulletin)


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