Winners and losers of Tunisia’s parliamentary elections

A man gestures after casting his ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections, in Tunis, Tunisia October 6, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC1CA224E2B0
Editor's note:

Tunisians voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday, their second of three elections scheduled this fall. In short, the 2019 parliamentary elections indicate a shifting political landscape with a fractured polity and plenty of new faces, writes Sharan Grewal. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post

Tunisians voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday, their second of three elections scheduled this fall. About 41 percent of registered voters turned out to vote, slightly lower than the 49 percent in the first round of the presidential elections held Sept. 15.

The elections will create a highly fractured parliament, with no party or list receiving more than 20 percent of the vote. While results will be announced Wednesday, exit polls suggest a narrow victory for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, with about 18 percent of the vote, followed closely by newcomer Qalb Tounes, with about 16 percent. Five smaller parties secured between 4 percent and 6 percent of the vote.

How Ennahda came in first

If the exit polls are right, Ennahda received about five percentage points more than its presidential candidate Abdelfattah Mourou garnered in the presidential elections three weeks ago. Two factors can explain Ennahda’s swift increase in vote share: support of an independent candidate and a campaign reassessment.

During the past two weeks, Ennahda tried to appeal to supporters of Kais Saied, the winner of the first round of the presidential elections. Saied, a constitutional law professor, has no political party and did not endorse any party or list. Thus, his voters were up for grabs in the parliamentary elections. Ennahda not only endorsed Saied for the runoff elections but also tried to convince Saied voters that Ennahda was their best hope for forming a government friendly to a Saied presidency.

After Mourou’s disappointing third-place finish in the presidential elections, Ennahda embarked on a reassessment of its campaign strategy. Noticeably, for the parliamentary campaign, Ennahda returned to its fundamentals: religion and the revolution.

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, himself running for the first time, proposed that a religious tax — the zakat — be administered by the state to help alleviate poverty, prompting a pointed reminder by a prominent feminist that Tunisia is a civil, not religious, state.

Meanwhile, Ennahda firebrand Habib Ellouze, who had been sidelined for the past five years, broke his silence with a plea that the “divine will demands voting for Ennahda” — a religious appeal that, my co-authors and I recently found, may be particularly effective.

Ennahda leaders repeatedly emphasized they would defend the revolution and fight corruption, despite their previous support for the reconciliation law. After six years of compromises on these issues, Ennahda brought religion and the revolution back into its campaign rhetoric, and with apparent success.

Heart of Tunisia keeps beating

The second-place party, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia), is a newcomer on the political scene created this spring. Its leader, the jailed media magnate Nabil Karoui, will be in the election runoff next week. Karoui and his party’s popularity was largely stagnant across the two elections: Qalb Tounes is projected to win the same 15.6 percent that Karoui attained in the first round.

Qalb Tounes’s appeal rests on Karoui, who co-owns a major television company, Nessma TV. From 2017 to June 2019, Karoui co-hosted a charity show on Nessma TV, “Khalil Tounes,” which pitched Karoui as a champion of the poor and forgotten Tunisians neglected by the system. Karoui, however, has been unable to formally campaign, as he was arrested in August on charges of money laundering and remains in pretrial detention. Sunday’s vote also suggests that the party’s appeal was not tarnished by news website Al-Monitor’s recent revelation of a foreign lobbying contract to aid the Karoui campaign.

Regardless of how Karoui performs in next week’s presidential runoff, Qalb Tounes has become a critical power broker. Ennahda almost certainly cannot form a government without it, especially after several smaller parties already refused to ally with Ennahda. However, during the campaign period, Ennahda and Qalb Tounes ruled out forming a coalition with one another, and both have continued to do so after the elections.

Is parliament too fractured to govern?

Even if Ennahda and Qalb Tounes came together, they will need the support of smaller parties to secure a majority. However, each of the next four parties have already ruled out an alliance with one or the other.

The Dignity Coalition, a new alliance of socially conservative, pro-revolution parties said it is open to allying with Ennahda — but not Qalb Tounes. The Free Destourian Party, an anti-Arab Spring party nostalgic for a strong state, said it will not ally with Ennahda. Both the progressive, pro-revolution Democratic Current and the Pan-Arab, leftist People’s Movement said they will join the opposition.

If these parties are not willing to come together, there is a real possibility that Ennahda will be unable to form a government, potentially prompting new elections next year. One possibility to avoid such a scenario was proposed by the Democratic Current: a government of national salvation composed of independent figures. Ennahda’s Mohamed Ben Salem similarly noted that while their preference is for Ennahda to assume the head of government, they must find a personality capable of gathering the required 109 votes.

A shifting landscape

Among the losers of Sunday’s parliamentary elections was the secular establishment. Neither Nidaa Tounes, Tahya Tounes, nor any of the other Tounes parties secured more than 5 percent of the vote. The secular establishment was hurt by internal divisions but also because of its alliance with Ennahda after the 2014 elections. That lesson may make secular parties even less likely to form a government with Ennahda this time around.

Two other underperformers in this election were the leftist Popular Front and the new populist movement 3ich Tounsi. The Front, which had enjoyed 15 seats in the previous parliament, is projected to receive zero, while 3ich Tounsi, despite performing well in pre-election polls, will probably receive just three to five seats.

In short, the 2019 parliamentary elections indicate a shifting political landscape with a fractured polity and plenty of new faces. Tunisia’s tradition of consensus politics will now be put to the test as they attempt to form a government.