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Tunisia’s small parties eye potential power

More than a dozen disparate groups hold ambitions for role in new National Assembly dominated by Nidaa Tounes and Ennahada
Popular Front central committee member Hayet Hamdi (MEE/Patrick O'Strickland)

TUNIS - Sitting in a downtown cafe in the Tunisian capital, 23-year-old medical student Ghassen Boukhari lit up a cigarette and explained that he wasn’t much interested in politics until shortly before the 2011 revolution that ended the 23-year rule of president Zine Al Abdine Ben Ali.

Since then, Tunisia has struggled with deep political polarisation, growing security threats on its borders and a waning economy. Yet last week the country held its second democratic elections since Ben Ali’s ouster.

“I thought it was very important for me to participate, and I voted for the Popular Front,” he told Middle East Eye, referring to a left-wing electoral alliance established in October 2012. The Popular Front, which includes 12 hard left parties, gained 15 seats in the country’s parliament, the National Assembly.

Nidaa Tounes, whose members Included secular politicians from across the spectrum, gained a 39 percent plurality (85 seats) in the National Assembly. Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, came in second with  31 percent (69 seats) of the vote.

The Free Patriotic Union, headed by Tunisian millionaire and political newcomer Slim Riahi, came out just ahead of the Popular Front by winning 16 seats. The liberal Afek Tounes got eight seats, and the remaining 24 seats were divided across a dozen smaller parties.

Each of these groups hopes to carve out an influential role in the Tunisian parliament.

“I didn’t vote for the Popular Front just because I am very convinced by their program,” Boukhari said. “In Tunisia we have an emerging mentality that we should either support Ennahda or Nidaa Tounes. I don’t agree with the neoliberal economics of Nidaa Tounes or the conservative Islamic views of Ennahda. Tunisia’s politics shouldn’t be bipolar, shouldn’t be ‘this’ or ‘that’.”

In the Popular Front’s downtown Tunis headquarters, central committee member Hayet Hamdi said the alliance expects a “very difficult” period ahead for the parliament.  

Hamdi is sitting in front of a large poster of Chokri Belaid, the Popular Front coordinator who was assassinated in early 2013. Another influential member, Mohamed Brahimi, was assassinated in June 2013, only two months after his People’s Movement party joined the Popular Front.

“For the very first time in years, the leftists have noteworthy power in the parliament,” she told Middle East Eye. “We never before had a noteworthy representation, and we will work our best to represent our constituency.”

The Popular Front would seek to “establish a primary role defending the rights of this country’s poor, and we will be a wall of defense against liberal economic policies, whether they are disguised as modernism by Nidaa Tounes or as the conservative religiosity of Ennahda”.

Whether or not Nidaa Tounes includes Ennahda in the government, the Popular Front will have a difficult time finding common ground with either.

Though the Popular Front differs sharply from Nidaa Tounes’s political and economic policies, “we are further from Ennahda because between us there are social disagreements, and most importantly there are blood and martyrs,” Hamdi said, alluding to the widely held belief that the Islamist party played a role in inciting the murders of Belaid and Brahimi.

After dominating the Tunisia’s first democratic elections in October 2011, Ennahda has since received the bulk of the blame for the country’s subsequent stagnant economy and a rise in militant Salafist activity.

Hamdi put forward certain conditions for the Popular Front’s participation in any coalition including Ennahda. “We will not work with them if Ali Laarayedh”, is part of the government she said, referring to the former Minister of Interior (2011-2013) and Ennahda member.

“Rocky road”

The Popular Front’s ideological program has little similarity with that of Afek Tounes, a centre-right liberal party whose support base is drawn from upper- class intellectuals. Though distinct, its political and economic aims are closer to the liberal approach of Nidaa Tounes than the Popular Front or Ennahda.

Much like Nidaa Tounes, Afek Tounes seeks to focus on economic advancement by fostering the free market and encouraging local entrepreneurship and foreign investment. Amid calls for federal wage increases, Afek Tounes member Riad Mouakher has released a statement saying that wage increases are “not a solution to increasing purchasing power” and getting the country’s economy back on track.

His party will aim to sponsor legislation with the goal of decreasing taxes for workers by 10 percent, according to the Afek Tounes website

Yassin Brahim, the party’s leader, published an open letter assuring Tunisians that Afek Tounes representatives in the parliament “will work hard to represent all Tunisians” from across the social and political spectrum “without exception”. Brahim stressed that economic improvement depends on “security and stability” and “institutional reform”.  

These goals will surely clash with left-wing and left-leaning parties represented in the parliament that seek to varying degrees to redistribute wealth and build a social welfare net.

Yet the rosy promises these political parties included in their campaign programs will not be easy to implement.

Nawel Beizid, a Tunis-based journalist and political analyst, said that despite the large ambitions of the Popular Front, Afek Tounes and other small parties in the parliament, it will be “rocky road for them” trying to exert their influence over legislation.

“The only thing they share in common is their stubborn opposition to Ennahda,” she told Middle East Eye. “Even if Nidaa Tounes excludes Ennahda, the small parties will be very limited in affecting the content of legislation.”

Beizid, a former political coordinator for Congress for the Republic party, added: “If they side with Nidaa [in a coalition], they won’t get credit for any successes, but they’ll share the blame of the failures.”

“That was proven in the past when Ettakatol was hardly influential in [a coalition with] Ennahda and still bore a large portion of the blame for mistakes during that period,” Beizid continued. “A potential coalition like this will be a very tense and uncomfortable alliance. There is no ideological cohesion, and if they exclude Ennahda it will absolutely not be durable.”

Yet despite the barriers that small parties will face, medical student and Popular Front supporter Ghassen Boukhari insisted that their parliamentary presence is “essential for Tunisia”.

“Democracy is about diversity,” he said.

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and regular contributor to Middle East Eye. His reportage can be found at Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_