Mixed moods in the Tunisian capital following the country's momentous parliamentary elections
TUNIS – Walking down Habib Bourguiba Boulevard, a prominent strip in the Tunisian capital, the mood is neither celebratory nor somber. Aside from the political flyers littering the ground and stickers on lampposts, there are few indicators that the country held momentous elections just a day earlier.
On Sunday, Tunisian voters lined up at voting stations in cities, towns and villages across the country to cast ballots in the second democratic elections since a 2011 revolution ousted US-backed President Zine Al Abdine Ben Ali.
Millions voted to elect the National Assembly, or parliament, which will serve for the next five years. Voter turnout topped sixty percent of eligible registered voters, according to the Independent High Authority for Elections (French: ISIE).
Headed by 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a former official under Ben Ali, Nidaa Tounes, the country’s largest secular party, appeared to have won a plurality, according to preliminary electoral results.
As of Monday night, Nidaa Tounes had won 83 seats, or 38 percent, of the parliament. Ennahda, on the other hand, earned second place with 68 seats, or roughly 31 percent of the total vote.
Ennahda officials quickly expressed their desire to form a unity government with Nidaa Tounes.
Founded in 2012, Nidaa Tounes was established largely an attempt by secular Tunisian politicians to push back against the moderate Islamist party Ennahda’s success in the October 2011 elections that brought into existence the National Constituent Assembly, a transitional governance body tasked with writing a new constitution.
Yet post-revolutionary Tunisia suffered from political deadlock after Ennahda took power. Following a months-long stalemate and the assassinations of two political opposition leaders, Mohamed Brahimi and Chokri Belaid, Ennahda stepped down in January.
To make matters worse, economic instability and a fifteen percent unemployment rate have put a pinch on the working class.
Mohamed Tayari, 20, university student and retailer
Mohamed Tayari (MEE/Emir Sfaxi)
Standing in front of the International Hotel, Mohamed Tayari says that his is “optimistic about yesterday’s [election] results and very happy simply because I didn’t want Ennahda to win”.
“When Ennahda was in power nothing changed for the better,” the 20-year-old university student and retailer told Middle East Eye, “but I also dislike Nidaa Tounes because there are so many people from Ben Ali’s regime. So, even though I’m optimistic, the Tunisian people are waiting for serious results and changes.”
Ennahda’s popularity has sharply decreased over the last year, according to a new Pew Research poll that found a 34 percent decrease in approval ratings ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections.
Ayoub Amara, left-wing activist
Ayoub Amara (MEE/Emir Sfaxi)
Down the street at the Universe Café, known as a hangout for leftwing activists, Ayoub Amara said that he is “cautiously optimistic for the era ahead of Tunisia”.
Although Amara, a coordinator for the Popular Front, a leftwing electoral alliance, is disappointed that a low number of leftwing candidates gained seats in the parliament, he explained the social and political climates are “ripe for struggle and organising”.
Preliminary results predict that the Popular Front won fifteen seats, or some five percent of the parliament.
“I think the Popular Front ought to play an integral role in the socioeconomic policy-making,” Amara said.
“Our activists and leaders struggled for years against the Ben Ali regime… and it’s shameful that so many people from the former regime are back in the government,” he added, citing Abir Mousa, a female politician who was active under Ben Ali.
Dora Zaher, 24, businesswoman and art student
Dora Zaher (MEE/Emir Sfaxi)
In Ville 78, a café and bed and breakfast, Dora Zaher, a 24-year-old businesswoman and art student, is also glad that Nidaa Tounes gained more seats than Ennahda.
“I voted for Nidaa Tounes mainly because I didn’t want Ennahda to win,” she told Middle East Eye. “I really don’t believe that religion should play a role in politics, so I voted for the party with the best chance of beating Ennahda.”
Nidaa Tounes’s campaign strategy was built around blaming Ennahda for security and economic problems.
When asked if she expected that Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda would have trouble finding common ground to form a coalition, Zaher said: “It will be sort of difficult at first, but they will eventually have to work together for the better of Tunisia.”
Mohamed Hajem, 27, works in security
Mohamed Hajem (MEE/Emir Sfaxi)
Expanding on her sentiments, Mohamed Hajem, a 27-year-old who works in security, says that neither Nidaa Tounes nor Ennahda represent his political hopes for Tunisia.
“I’m not going to waste my time,” he said. “Both of the big parties [Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes] give me no reason to hope for real change. Any Tunisian who becomes a politician also becomes corrupt… it’s just what history has shown us since the revolution.”
Explaining that he supported the 2011 revolution that overthrew Ben Ali, Hajem said that he was disappointed “that so many people died for a new order in this country, and that [new order] still hasn’t arrived.”
Walking along the boulevard, Maryam, who declined to give Middle East Eye her full name, says she didn’t vote. “I am not interested in politics,” she said. “I’m glad Ennahda didn’t win, but I never even registered to vote.”
Tyta Aghrebi, 23, a teacher and translator, declined to say whether she was pleased with the elections results.
“I don’t know how I feel about the elections’ results,” she told Middle East Eye. “Yet, I’m glad that we have more diversity than before. It is an opportunity for Nidaa Tounes to prove that they are not just a new version of the old regime. It’s also an opportunity for Ennahda to gain people’s trust as part of the opposition.”
Later this year, Tunisian voters will cast their ballots in two rounds of presidential elections, scheduled respectively for November 23 and December 28. Nidaa Tounes’s Essebsi is seen as one of the strongest contenders, and it is unclear whether Ennahda will put forward a candidate.
Among others, Essebsi’s main challengers include Marcef Marzouki, the current interim president, and Slim Riahi, a Tunisian businessman and founder of the Free Patriotic Union.
“I am optimistic because I think Tunisians know what they do and don’t like,” Aghrebi concluded. “At least they will work on preventing mistakes that we dealt with in the last few years” since the revolution. “On an individual level, we Tunisians have a lot of work ahead of us. It’s up to us and not related to any political parties.”