Tunisia’s Democratic Transition and Essid’s New Cabinet

On Monday February 2, Tunisia’s new Prime Minister Habib Essid proposed a new cabinet that includes greater representation of other parties within his coalition, among them Islamist Ennahdha, Slim Riahi’s Free Patriotic Union (UPL) and Afek Tounes. This follows events last week, when a previously proposed cabinet met resistance for its unrepresentative nature. This most recent announcement followed deliberations and rumors over the weekend that seemed to indicate some reticence on the part of Essid’s party, Nida Tounes, about whether including Ennahdha was a viable option. The fact that the avowedly anti-Islamist Nida Tounes has decided to include Islamist party Ennahdha in their coalition reveals a number important points that bode well for Tunisia’s democratic institutions but indicate that true policy successes might be more difficult to come by in the near future.

First, both Ennahdha and Nida Tounes are pragmatic and opportunistic parties. Though each has legitimate reservations about the other – not to mention ideological differences – they have expressed a willingness to enter into an alliance. Nida Tounes is headed by Beji Caid Essebsi, who served for a period under deposed President Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, Ennahdha was fiercely persecuted; it would be understandable for Ennahdha members, among them party leader Rached Ghanoouchi, to feel lingering distrust and resentment. For Nida Tounes, the party gained much of its support campaigning in opposition to Ennahdha, portraying itself as the most viable secular party. The fact that the two parties were able to put aside these feelings bodes well for a future peaceful transfer of power, as each has been able to put aside mutual suspicions and dislike for the sake of governing. This could also serve to calm some of the incendiary rhetoric that characterized the debate between the two parties over the last several years, but such a development could easily be undone once campaigning begins again.

Second, the decision to include Ennahdha in the coalition did not come easily for Nida Tounes. This is not surprising given the party’s seemingly amorphous political stance that seems most united when discussing their common enemy – political Islam. However, the fact that deliberations on such a key issue seemed to take on a divisive character within the party suggests that splits are very possible within Nida Tounes’ ranks, though not necessarily in the short term. If true, this would replicate a phenomenon seen when former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned and ultimately left Ennahdha due to conflicts within the party. While Ennahdha survived the very public split, it both portended and encouraged the difficulties the party would face in the most recent elections; although Ennahdha is the second largest party in the current parliament, it does not have the commanding lead over other parties that it enjoyed in 2011. Unlike Ennahdha, Nida Tounes is a young party whose most unifying factors are Essebsi’s experience and persona and the party’s opposition to Islamist politics. If a split occurs within Nida Tounes early on, it could spell distaster for the party down the road.

Third, coalitions within Tunisia will likely continue to feature the biggest winners in the elections regardless of the ideological differences between the two parties. After the NCA elections in 2011 and the most recent elections, the winning coalition  featured the largest parties irrespective of political affiliation. In 2011, this included Ennahdha, former President Marzouki’s CPR party, and Dr. Mostapha ben Jaafer’s Ettakatol. We are the seeing the same the pattern repeat itself here. In 2011, this was ostensibly to write a new constitution that better represented the will of the Tunisian people. In 2015, such a decision makes sense only under the banner of assembling a winning coalition. While the decision by Nida Tounes to include Ennahdha does show tolerance and a willingness to work across the aisle, it also suggests a fear among Tunisian politicians of taking serious chances politically or assembling more partisan coalitions. Tunisia’s opposition will lack a strong party while the two largest parties form a consensus based around PM Essid’s cabinet. Without a political party that is willing and able to take risks politically, Tunisia cannot hope to tackle the very necessary – and potentially unpopular – reforms that it must take in the coming months, including reassessing its public subsidies. And without a major party in the opposition, Tunisians will be left without a strong voice to counterbalance Essid’s new government.

The new coalition between secular Nida Tounes and Islamist Ennahdha brings promise and peril. On the one hand, the willingness of parties to share power regardless of ideological differences bodes well for future transitions and Tunisia’s overall democratic development. On the other hand, such a contentious alliance could split the winning party, potentially ruining its chances of implementing its vision. And while parties sharing power is good for democratic institutions, it doesn’t necessarily produce the best policy decisions. Without a party that can garner popular support through gutsy and articulated plans, Tunisia’s democratic transition might generate strong institutions at the expense of strong policy.

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