Tunisia, political participation and ideological compromise

Almost five years ago on December 18, 2010, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia with the Jasmine Revolution. That was the promising starting point for pushing democratic reforms in the country and for providing new opportunities for political participation. For this reason, Tunisia has gained a great political significance in the Arab world as a pioneer of good practices in the post-revolution period, especially in terms of the promotion of democratic ideals.

The substantial creation of new political parties and non-governmental organizations has signaled the emerging of a more inclusive political sphere.[1] The recent award of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet featured this new era based on the idea of the political participation of all social groups towards a new democratic period for the country. The parliamentary and presidential elections of 2014 were the conclusion of a four-year transition period heading to full democracy and gave the opportunity for political pluralism and participation, however without missing reactions from opposition sides. With the enactment of the new constitution in 2014, the country sealed the democratization efforts and laid the foundations for the future. The new constitution provided a solid basis for the creation of a modern, secular and democratic society in which participation and equality are deemed necessary.

Tunisia during the Ben Ali’s regime

The organization and holding of free democratic elections in Tunisia after the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” have its own meaning. Mainly because the existence of opportunities for elections in a free democratic process was theoretically a utopia in a country that had experienced governmental authoritarianism for decades. Before the revolution and the first free elections in 2011, the country experienced a long period of authoritarian rule that used to legitimize its existence through seemingly democratic institutions and unilateral elections. The state legislative authority was under the control of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Ben Ali’s party. The superficial stability that characterized the political life of the country until 2011 was the result of a well-organized façade democracy. A system where democracy is manipulated by ruling elite, preventing genuine deepening (contestation) and widening (participation), two dimensions of Dahl’s polyarchy.[2]

A new era for political participation

After President Ben Ali revolutionary dethronement and his escape from Tunisia on January 14, 2011, following a period of mounting anti-government demonstrations, the country showed a will and a significant progress in exerting the right to political participation. Tunisians were given the opportunity to elect by universal suffrage 217 members of an Assembly having the task of appointing a new democratic government and drawing up a new constitution. Despite isolated reports of irregularities and expected instability and uncertainty throughout the country, according to the Tunisian High Authority of the Elections the turnout was 52 percent. That proved both the anticipation of the people to participate in free elections and their expectations for legitimate results as a guarantee for democratic transition. However it became obvious that Tunisian society was divided not only over issues of future organization of the political order but also over questions of identity that went back to the independence and issue of nation-building.[3]

The governmental coalition that emerged with the majority party Ennahda and two smaller secularist center-left parties – the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (Ettakatol) – boosted the Constituent Assembly to draft the new constitution. The different committees set up to work on parts of the constitution draft were importantly influenced by each party’s respective power of seat and interest in the Assembly. However, even with the establishment of a Joint Committee for Cooperation and Drafting which was responsible for managing the coordination of the work of all the relevant drafting committees, the members of Ennahda dominated the situation leading the other members to complain about their isolation and lack of opportunities to express their own beliefs.

The overall political and social climate at that time was featured by a contestation, which was affecting the smooth democratic transition.

The ruling party Ennahda had to deal with and struggle between the Islamist and secularist movements, two key drivers of the Tunisian society. On the one side, the Islamists – namely the Salafists – protested against the westernization of life in Tunisia, on the other side the Secularist coalition disagreed on the restrictions promoted by the Ennahda Government regarding the full exercise of women’s rights and of civil rights. This led to a harsh confrontation between Islamists and secularists with violent protests especially after the assassination of two political opposition figures in February 2013 and in July 2013, respectively.

The electoral law and the political plurality

The political crisis that followed marked negatively Tunisia’s transition to democracy and plunged the country and its people into a climate of frustration and deep distrust. Under these circumstances the ruling party Ennahda agreed to the creation of a neutral political coalition government in order to head towards parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014 and to promote the adoption of the new constitution. The country was led to a national debate without political exclusion with the adoption of a new electoral law in May 2014.

One of the key elements of the domestic political dialogue – which involved most of the political class – was the non-implementation of the immunization law proposed in February 2012. The so-called “Law on political immunization of the Revolution” had been drafted by the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) – a member of the National Constituent Assembly’s ruling coalition – and it aimed at banning the re-election of any RDC Member or anyone who supported former President Ben Ali. The key issue was not limiting political participation, but stressing the importance of political unity in finishing the constitution and leading to elections.

The constitutional guarantees

The new constitution was finally adopted on January 26, 2014, as a result of a fragile compromise among the different political parties. The creation of a Constitution Court was seen as a guarantee for the protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms in case of restriction attempts from the legislative power. The article 49 of the constitution provides a detailed limitation clause designed to prevent any future possibility of curbing citizens’ rights. Indeed the two authoritarian regimes that ruled over the country since the 1950s used to include rights and freedoms in their constitutions and thereafter to eliminate them through legislation.

The new constitution and the work of the governmental coalition made up of the Islamist party Ennahda and the Nidaa Tounes – a coalition party of secularists, liberals, leftists and ex officials during the Ben Ali’s period – led the country to parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of 2014. Legislative elections were held in October and presidential elections were held in two rounds in November and December 2014. The new election law fueled the freedom of political participation and promoted the creation of different ideological coalitions. It also guaranteed gender equality, a great step towards total gender equality in the political and social life.

Indeed the elections were characterized by political pluralism and participation: many of the more than 100 existing legal parties run for the elections, and turnout was very high – almost 67 percent of the registered voters. The majority of the voters followed the two main political poles of the political transition period, the Nidaa Tounes which won 86 seats and the Ennahda which won 69 seats, the latter reflecting a loss of popularity in comparison with the 2011 results but still representing a high considerable average of the Tunisian Islamists supporters. Also other parties and smaller coalitions won enough seats to participate significantly in the new government formation.

Despite the outcome of the parliamentary elections, the weakness of Nidaa Tounes in creating a stable government and the upcoming presidential elections were employing the political forces on how to avoid a polarization that would suddenly lead to a divergence of the political attitudes to ideological extremes with bad consequences to the Tunisian society. Further polarization along Islamist/secularist lines could radicalize people and especially many young Islamists who were until recently close to Ennahda, the party now out of power.[4] Eventually, Ennahda did not present its candidate for the Presidency opening up the field to Nidaa Tounes candidate Caid Essebsi, along with the interim President Marzouki and a range of 20 more candidates. In the first round of presidential election in November 2014 with 64 percent voter turnout, Caid Essebsi won the 40 percent of the votes followed by Marzouki with 33 percent. The two got the second round of elections in December 2014 – with around 61 percent voter turnout – where Caid Essebsi got almost 55 percent of the votes, against the 44 percent of Marzouki. Thus, Essebsi has become the first directly elected president of Tunisia.

Following the Presidential elections, in January 2015 Nidaa Tounes proposed a cabinet including members of the Free Patriotic Union (UPL). After strong objections mainly from Ennahda for a more broad based governmental coalition a new cabinet was proposed. The parliament confirmed the new cabinet headed by the Nidaa Tounes in February 2015, including members from the UPL, the secularist party Afek Tounes and the Ennahda, which was finally given governmental positions. However, fears started growing that Nidaa Tounes’s rise to power could lead to a return of what many Tunisians call “et-taghouel,” i.e. the kind of political hegemony of the pre-revolution period.[5]


Tunisia’s revolution against Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime led the country into a new phase of the political democratic framework. The political transition period in Tunisia avoided the chaos and managed to balance the, expected, crisis and violence with progress in the formation of the democratic institutions. More than just a question of transition from one political system to another, Tunisians saw this phase as a moment of reconstitution of politics and the reinvention of society.[6] With political pluralism and participation during the electoral processes and the adoption of the new Constitution, Tunisians effectively played an essential role in drafting their own democratic values. Awareness of the need for political compromise, understanding and social cohesion shaped the foundations of the new constitution which guaranteed the protection of rights and freedoms for citizens. The free participation encouraged by the political diversity and versatility became the basin in which these rights and freedoms could be practiced. Tunisians now are able but also committed not only to follow the road map that has been shaped in their favor leading to a democratic way but also to guarantee for themselves in terms of a new stable political period. Much more responsible in this same way are the leading figures of the country that should be enforced with the major responsibility of protecting and defending their people’s rights.

Stylianos Kostas

Master’s degree in Democratic Governance at the MENA region (European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation)

[1] Khatib, L. (2013) “Political Participation and Democratic Transition in the Arab World,” Journal of international Law 34(2), 2013, 1–23.

[2] Sadiki, L. (2002) “Political Liberalization in Bin Ali’s Tunisia: Façade Democracy,” Democratization 9(4), 2002, 122–141.

[3] Zemni, S. (2014) “The Extraordinary Politics of the Tunisian Revolution: The Process of Constitution Making,” Mediterranean Politics, 2014, 1–17.

[4] Lefèvre, R. (2015) “Tunisia: a fragile political transition,” The Journal of North African Studies, 1–5.

[5] Lefèvre, R. (2015) “Tunisia: a fragile political transition,” The Journal of North African Studies, 2015, 1–5.

[6] Zemni, S. (2014) “The Extraordinary Politics of the Tunisian Revolution: The Process of Constitution Making,” Mediterranean Politics, 2014, 1–17.

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