When the Nidaa Tounes (“Call for Tunisia”) party was formally licensed in July 2012, it positioned itself as a “modern” alternative to the Islamist Ennahda party. Led by former interim prime minister Béji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes drew a wide range of people, including supporters of Tunisia's Destourian (“Constitution”) movement, trade unionists, leftists, and independents, as well as former members of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. Despite the members’ ideological differences, they agreed to unite to counterbalance the Islamists in light of the challenges facing the country: religiously-motivated violence, economic stagnation, and delays in drafting the Constitution.
With parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for October 2014, questions remain about the ability of Nidaa Tounes' members to unite around shared core principles and inspire confidence in the electorate. The last reliable polls published in April placed Nidaa Tounes as Tunisia’s most popular party (with a support base of 20 percent), followed by Ennahda (14 percent); the party next in line registers only 4 percent. However, voter inscriptions for the elections have been very low and might favor the Islamists, as Nidaa Tounes has recently shown signs of repeating many of the mistakes of secular parties in parliament. These missteps threaten to dissipate its momentum, and raise questions about its ability to govern.
United in Diversity?
Internal tensions within the party led the media in mid-July to speculate that Nidaa Tounes' Secretary General, Taieb Baccouch, might soon resign. One point of contention was the scheduling of the founding congress, at which the party's leadership structures and executive committee would be determined; the issue was whether it would be held before or after elections. Essebsi's proposal to hold the founding congress before the elections was perceived by Ridha Belhaj and Taieb Baccouche—figureheads of many independents, leftists, and trade unionists—as a potential attempt to reinforce the power of the RCD-Destourian members within the party, who hold a majority. Party leaders finally agreed to postpone the congress to June 2015.
Yet, the atmosphere within Nidaa Tounes has remained tense, and some members opposed to the increased presence of former senior members of Ben Ali’s party feel that they might eventually have to leave. This view was expressed by a Nidaa Tounes deputy in parliament, who admitted: “I am not sure the party will persist in its current shape until the elections. Many of us have come to realize that the [party platforms] of the two main wings in Nidaa Tounes are mutually exclusive and that it is not in our interest to work with each other.”
The Failure of the Union for Tunisia
The crisis within Nidaa Tounes and the increasing dominance of the Destourian-RCD block within the party has also negatively affected its participation in the Union for Tunisia, a coalition created in February 2013 that brings several secular parties under one umbrellla (the largest being Nidaa Tounes, followed by al-Massar). In June 2014, Samir Taïeb, the spokesperson of the al-Massar party, described the Union for Tunisia as “broken-down [être en panne] because of the crisis within Nidaa Tounes,” and said that it existed only in name. Frictions heightened last month when Nidaa Tounes decided to run separately—rather than as part of a coalition list—in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2014, because it commands more voter support than any of its coalition partners.
Some members of Nidaa Tounes (primarily those in the leftist, independents, and trade unionist block) have criticized the party’s decision not to run as part of a Union for Tunisia coalition list, claiming that even parties with lower voter support—like al-Massar—have many well-respected figures who would be assets on a joint lists. This argument is worth considering. During the last elections, secular parties did poorly, failing to form strong coalitions because they incorrectly assessed their support base to be stronger than it was. Although Nidaa Tounes’ polling results are far higher than that of any secular party in 2011, its self-confidence may be misplaced; many voters are still undecided, and its internal battles and the gradual failure of the Union for Tunisia have made the party less popular.
Essebsi for President
Essebsi's political ambitions—including a presidential campaign—have reinforced internal tensions as he has focused in recent weeks more on the electoral campaign than keeping the party together. If Essebsi is elected president, the consequences for Nidaa Tounes could be profoundly detrimental, if the experience of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) is any guide: the party (which, like Nedaa Tounes, included various ideological currents and had a single strong leader) nearly fell apart when Moncef Marzouki became president, and had to cease all party responsibilities. In parliament, the CPR has become the party with the highest number of resignations.
Most analysts currently predict that the presidential candidate supported by Ennahda stands a higher chance of being elected than Essebsi, given the Islamists' persistent support at the grassroots. And Essebsi cannot guarantee that he will get the votes of secular Tunisians, many of whom feel that the demands of the revolution have yet to be met and might take issue with some of Essebsi’s recent statements—including his condemnation of Tunisia's Commission for Truth and Dignity, tasked with investigating past human rights violations, as an “attempt to settle accounts” [reglements de comptes] with the past. Poor voter inscriptions seem to confirm this trend, but Essebsi's recent proposal to postpone the elections has not attracted much support, because it would violate the new constitution.
Ennahda-Nidaa Tounes: A Doomed Alliance?
Recently, some members of Nidaa Tounes have voiced their fear that a “secret pact” might be taking shape between senior leaders of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes who think that a coalition government is feasible. Such a post-electoral alliance, however, would, be far more destabilizing for Nidaa Tounes than for the Islamists. Many members of Ennahda oppose the recent ascent of Nidaa Tounes because they see it as a comeback of RCD supporters, who were notorious for persecuting Islamists. Yet, in government Ennahda was sometimes willing to go against its own principles when under pressure; for example, it voted against a law that would have prevented former members of Ben Ali's party from running for elections, a move that was fiercely criticized by its base. Nevertheless, the Islamist party has managed to retain a great deal of unity. By contrast, a coalition would certainly result in further fragmentation of Nidaa Tounes' ideologically diverse base, and probably lead to the resignation of those many members who joined the party primarily because they reject the Islamists. Inasmuch as Nidaa Tounes continues to define itself primarily in opposition to the Islamists, this risk will persist.
The Governance Challenge
As Nidaa Tounes faces substantial challenges in the months ahead, its ability to govern and to present solutions to key problems of Tunisia's transitional period – economic stagnation and the rise in religiously-motivated violence – remains uncertain. The general party priorities have been agreed uponn and include responding to the demands of the revolution and integrating the marginalized interior into the wider economy. However, it will be difficult for Nidaa Tounes members, who bring with them very different ideologies, to agree upon concrete policies to that end. A particular risk is that hitherto internal party responsibilities have not been democratically agreed upon, so decisions are not accountable. Hafedh Essebsi, the son of Béji Caid Essebsi, is responsible for internal party structures, despite his lack of relevant experience. Moreover, many senior leaders have close ties to the business sector, and might thus be less inclined to pursue deep reforms that go against their own interest. If Nidaa Tounes wants to tackle Tunisia's various socio-economic and security challenges, it should start by solving its own internal contradictions and democratizing from within.
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Author interview with Nidaa Tounes members, June 2014, Tunis, Tunisia.
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Author interview with Nidaa Tounes members, June 2014, Tunis, Tunisia.
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