Tunisian by-election upset could signal trouble for ruling elite
Populist groups have sought to capitalise on the people’s frustrations in the country.
2017/12/24 Issue: 137 Page: 11
The Arab Weekly
Tunis- The surprise victory of a political outsider in Tunisia’s parliamentary by-elections alarmed the country’s ruling parties and signalled popular disapproval of the governing elite.
Yassine Ayari, a controversial blogger and activist with alleged extremist affinities, defeated 25 other candidates for a seat in the Tunisian Assembly. The election, overseas for Tunisian expatriates in Germany, attracted little interest among eligible voters; only 5% of the 26,000 registered voted.
The outcome was a blow to Tunisia’s main ruling parties, the secularist Nidaa Tounes and Islamist Ennahda and indicated growing disillusionment with mainstream politics. It coincided with the anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2011 set off the events that toppled the authoritarian regime of former ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the “Arab spring” uprisings.
Ayari, a self-declared independent candidate, is a divisive figure whose sympathies for radical Islam have been under scrutiny. Following the revolution, he was criticised for posting a picture with a black flag associated with Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical Salafist groups. After the vote, Ayari said his loyalties were with former President Moncef Marzouki, who has been trying to make a comeback on the political scene.
Ayari, himself, was astounded by his win. “I beat Ennahda, Nidaa, Democratic Current, Al Joumhouri, the Popular Front and Machrou Tounes parties,” Ayari wrote on his blog. “I do not understand how I pulled this victory.”
Most analysts see the vote as a confirmation of the lingering distrust by voters, especially younger ones, of the political class. Indicators show the distrust translating to indifference to elections but the rate of participation in Germany’s by-election takes that level of indifference to an unprecedented low.
The election results seem also to widen suspicions between Nidaa Tounes and its Islamists coalition partners. Some Ennahda figures blamed the defeat on the disillusionment of the Islamist grass-roots supporters about their party’s coalition with Nidaa Tounes, which is perceived by many Islamists as increasingly critical of their party.
Asked about Ayari’s surprise victory, Mohamed Ben Salem, a leading member of Ennahda, reiterated that “Ennahda’s leadership expressed support for Nidaa’s candidate” but that “Ennahda’s voters are free in their choices when Ennahda is not fielding its own candidate.”
“It is not the fault of Ennahda’s voters if Nidaa (Tounes) lost the vote,” Ben Salem added.
Others in the secularist party blamed Ennahda for being “two-faced,” saying the party’s official stance is often at odds with some members.
“Many voices inside Nidaa (Tounes) believe the party’s relationship with Ennahda damages the reputation of Nidaa, its agenda and its appeal. That explains the outcome of the election,” said Nidaa Tounes spokesman Borhane Bessaies.
In an official statement, Nidaa Tounes said it would “undertake the courageous and necessary decisions regarding its relationship with some of the political parties” at a meeting of its top leaders.
Some analysts contended, however, that there is a dangerously radical Islamist subcurrent that carries certain appeal with disgruntled segments of the population and that does not bode well for the country’s political stability. They argued that the organisation remains a conservative Islamist group that is incompatible with a pluralistic democracy.
“Until there is evidence to the contrary, Ennahda’s voters will always remain obscurantist until we force them by law to respect democracy,” said former diplomat Farhat Othman in an opinion piece.
Ennahda previously worked with Marzouki, who served as president from 2011-14 and is now with the Harak al Iradaa (Movement of Goodwill).
“Ayari’s victory is a great victory for the revolutionary forces in the anniversary of the uprising of December 17. It signals changes in the future in the political landscape in Tunisia,” Harak MP Imed Daimi said.
Populist groups such as Harak have sought to capitalise on the people’s frustrations in the country, which is struggling to rebound from years of economic hardship.
A December survey by Sigma polling company said that more than 80% of Tunisians respondents said they were unhappy with the country’s economic and social situation. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their families’ financial circumstances were getting worse.
The by-election triggered alarm with the political class about the risk that disillusioned voters would shun municipal elections scheduled for next May and the general elections planned for 2019.