North Africa, West Asia

The impact of the coalition on Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes

The multi-party government in Tunisia has shown the parties' willingness and ability to compromise, but has also revealed divisions that present both risk and opportunity.

Anouar Jamaoui
11 March 2015
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Tunisian parliament. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Demotix. All rights reserved.

El-Habib Saïd took the reins of the office of prime minister on 6 February 2015. He succeeded Mehdi Juma, chairman of the technocratic interim government that assumed full responsibility for running the country early in 2014.

In a crucial confidence vote, 166 deputies approved the proposed government, 60 voted against and eight abstained, out of the total 204 deputies present in parliament during the voting. The new government is composed of 42 members (28 ministers and 14 secretaries of state) who are either independent politicians or executive leaders in various political parties.

Nidaa Tounes won eight ministerial portfolios, while Ennahda took the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training as well as secretaries of state for health, investment, and finance. The Free Patriotic Union and Prospects for Tunisia won three ministries each in the newly formed government. The National Front was accorded no portfolios of great salience: only the position of Secretary of State for Foreign Relations, a post held in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tunisia’s coalition government draws power from the present distribution of political roles and responsibilities, and the diversity of the political parties and technocrats represented in parliament. Twenty-three out of 42 ministers and secretaries of state are independent, while 19 are members of political parties.

Against this backdrop, two questions crop up. What are the implications of the multi-party coalition government on Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes? What are the profits and losses of these political parties, which seem to have studied the current rules of the political game with its promises, concessions, investments and risks?

Ennahda

Ennahda’s political alliance with Nidaa Tounes is far from being a consensual issue within its inner circles, where the government is sharply criticised for not reflecting the level of Islamist representation in parliament. It is still, however, defended as a strategic choice by the party’s prominent leaders, who are adamant about Ennahda’s presence in the governmental structure. There are a variety of reasons for this rapprochement with Nidaa Tounes, which is backed by a significant number of Ennahda members.

Some of these reasons are subjective and can be summarised as follows. While the Troika’s second government was running the country, Ennahda consistently defended the project of national dialogue, and succeeded in convincing many of its partisans of the importance of consensual governance and a transparent handover of power in Tunisia.

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Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Later in October 2014, Ennahda ran a cautious legislative election campaign. The Islamist party shunned any demonisation of or collision with political opponents, raising the pro-national consensus slogan. After the announcement of the election results, it called for the formation of a national government made up of the most important parties and civil forces, in order to overcome the country’s political, social and economic crisis.

Saïd’s formation of a coalition government is consistent in principle with Ennahda’s project of promoting consensual and pluralistic governance, a project that has become a fait accompli even though Ennahda was awarded only one ministerial portfolio.

In fact, Ennahda’s support of the current Tunisian government in the parliamentary vote of confidence made it appear in the eyes of its supporters and citizens as a responsible political party, which gives priority to national unity over narrow political interests and considerations.

The Islamist movement persuaded its partisans of the validity of its strategic political choices, particularly its use of diplomatic flexibility in political negotiations in the transitional phase, and its support for the coalition government.

Through its symbolic presence in the government, Ennahda plans to maintain a foothold within the newly formed Council of Ministers, as one of the key centres of decision-making in the new Tunisian state. It is believed that its participation in the current government will inevitably allow it to have first-hand knowledge of political developments, and will preserve its power to influence political projects by acclamation or revocation.

Through this presence, Ennahda seeks to avoid the scenario of a monopoly of political authority by leftists and constitutionalists. Such a scenario could lead to the isolation of Ennahda, its exclusion from the political scene, and the prosecution of its adherents and leaders—as happened in the nineties, at the time when the Democratic Constitutional Rally and Ben Ali’s oligarchic regime tolerated no political pluralism.

There is also an array of objective reasons for the rapprochement between Islamists and Nidaa Tounes. Ennahda’s leadership is acutely conscious of the changing political landscape in Arab countries, the repercussions of the unexpected arrival of Islamists to power, and the difficulties that encumbered and ended their rule, as was the case in Egypt.
 
Taking these factors into consideration, Ennahda was keen to avoid any clash whatsoever with the representatives of the old regime in Nidaa Tounes, and instead participate in the coalition government.
 
The Islamist movement presented itself to Tunisians as a civil, democratic, party with a Muslim background, a moderate political body that favours dialogue, communication, and alliance with the political other for the sake of securing order and public welfare.

Thus it gained the image of a party that has the ability to advance via dialogue and compromise, rather than an obsolete party holed behind an unchanging radical ideology. In this way, Ennhada won the battle for the normalisation of relations with the state and maintained its presence in a secular-liberal dominated government.

With the coalition government, Ennahda was able to protect itself against the possible exclusionary attitude of the mainstream secular leftist current in Nidaa Tounes and the Popular Front—parties that ardently defended the exclusion of Islamists from governance.

Nidaa Tounes

When the results of the legislative elections were announced in October 2014, Nidaa Tounes became the main major political party in parliament, winning 86 seats out of 217. But despite the percentage of its parliamentary representation, Nidaa Tounes did not win enough of a majority to form a government without recourse to coalition.

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Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi. Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Nidaa Tounes was itself divided from within because of three difficult political options. The first was to exclude Ennhada (69 seats) and the Popular Front (16 seats) and instead opt for an alliance with the Free Patriotic Union (16 seats) and Prospects for Tunisia (8 seats).

Although this choice would have permitted Nidaa Tounes to get the minimum number of votes required to win the confidence vote in parliament (109 votes), it could have given rise to a fragile coalition facing fierce opposition from Islamists and leftists alike.

The second option, the chief purpose of which was to isolate Ennahda, was to form a coalition with the Popular Front and a number of independents, along with the MPs from the so-called "democratic family".

This did not enjoy support in parliament or in the Tunisian street. It was read as a risky choice that would restore the state of binary polarisation and division of society between Islamists and secularists. It could also threaten the success of the nascent democracy, social peace and political stability heralded by Nidaa Tounes and promised to its voters and supporters during the electoral campaign.

The third alternative, which was the one selected by the party, was to dispense with the coalition with the Popular Front and opt for an alliance with Ennhada, the Free National Union and Prospects for Tunisia. The result of this alternative was the birth of a right-wing coalition that brought together the open progressive right (Nidaa Tounes, Prospects for Tunisia, and the Free National Union) and the conservative right (Ennahda).

The current coalition reveals a convergence in the programmatic economic identity of the allied political parties. The congruence between them enabled the Saïd-led government to win an outright majority of votes in parliament, strongly protecting it against the pitfalls of ideological conflict, social unrest, protest movements, and ultimately a no confidence motion that could lead to its dissolution.

Accordingly, having Ennahda participate in the coalition was neither a spontaneous nor arbitrary but a strategic decision by Nidaa Tounes. Its leadership was seeking to achieve several objectives, including helping the government, led by the newly nominated prime minister, pass its first test in the parliamentary vote of confidence—and the vote was won with a comfortable majority unprecedented in the history of post-revolutionary governments.
 
Another reason for choosing a coalition with Ennahda was to successfully contain moderate Islamists by turning them from a popular protest base opposing the government into a supportive base defending the nascent government’s political and economic projects in the next few months.
 
Besides, Nidaa Tounes seeks to remove suspicion about its alleged status as heir of the old order. By allying itself with Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes is trying to normalise relations with the opposition forces that struggled against the repressive state under Ben Ali. Through this normalisation, Nidaa Tounes hopes to secure its image as the first secular liberal party in Tunisia's political history that accepts, after its victory in the legislative elections, the participation of Islamists in the government.

It is also attempting to present itself in the form of a new-old party, which can adapt its ideology to the requirements of the current state of Tunisian politics. Nidaa Tounes has succeeded in demonstrating that it is willing to accept participatory rule and political pluralism as substitutes for unilateralism and bilateral polarisation. It has proved that it favours consensus to serve the protection and strengthening of national unity and interests.
 
Additionally, President Beji Caid Essebsi—considered the spiritual father of Nidaa Tounes—openly expressed his support for the rapprochement with Ennahda. In defending the coalition, Essebsi wanted to appear as the Tunisian president who can unify Tunisians and avoid schisms in the country.
 
In fact, backed by decision-makers in Nidaa Tounes, Saïd’s decision to engage Ennahda in governance is a double-edged weapon. It is a purely political choice that could increase Essebsi’s popularity and foster Nidaa’s efforts to attract new supporters. But it also casts a shadow of doubt on the internal unity of the party.
 
The division in Nidaa Tounes regarding the alliance with Ennahda has recently come to the foreground. The visible conflict shows the difference between the constitutionalists and the Francophone leftists who make up the party’s leadership. Most constitutionalists believe that the exclusion of Ennhada from the government is not viable because it would mean the exclusion of one-third of Tunisian voters.
 
By contrast, the left-wing radicals in Nidaa Tounes reject any form of alliance with Ennahda. They consider rapprochement with Islamists a real betrayal of the electorate who voted for Nidaa Tounes, because it represented itself as the best substitute for Ennahda rather than one of its potential allies. The leftists in Nidaa regard Ennahda as a religious party completely distinct from the secular parties making up the democratic family.
 
This disagreement in the inner circles of Nidaa Tounes is reflected in the conflicting attitudes and incompatible speeches of the party’s Executive Office and Constituent Authority members. Those calling for the exclusion of Islamists defend the formation of a Nidaa-dominated government.
 
Those calling for their inclusion in the political fabric argue that the party should give priority to national unity over its own political calculations. The divide in the declarations made by the members of a seemingly unified party on the question of the involvement of Islamists in the government proves the diverse political orientations to be found in Nidaa Tounes.

Essebsi’s resignation from the post of party chair and election as president has created a vacuum of charismatic leadership within Nidaa Tounes, and fuelled the conflict arising from competition between Nidaa members for the party’s chairmanship and membership in the executive office.

The conflict in itself can be read as evidence of the difficulties encountered by the party in reconciling the task of running state affairs and safeguarding the coherence of its structures and policies. Such reconciliation is crucial if Nidaa Tounes seeks to consolidate the unity of its popular base.

In fact, the party confronts a real risk of fragmentation, the corollary of political decisions that have recently been taken without consultation of its adherents and representatives in parliament. Threats to the internal cohesion of Nidaa Tounes are increasing to the extent that some party members have warned about the lack of communication between the party’s MPs on one level, and between members nominated either as ministers and secretaries of state or as the president’s assistants and advisors in Carthage Palace on another.

The consequences of the present state of confusion unsettling Nidaa Tounes from the inside remain unpredictable. They may change the weight of the party in the Tunisian political scene, a party that was initially created by a group of politicians who shared anti-Ennahda sentiments. Nidaa Tounes may ultimately be divided because of the disparity between the political choices of its members.

Perhaps the Nidaa Tounes leadership election, to be held in June 2015 during its first conference, may resolve the aforementioned problems and conflicts, and determine the real future political influence of the party in the country as well as its ability to manage its internal conflicts in a democratic manner.

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