Tunisia: An election full of surprises

The ambiance of a celebratory mood is modest and no one claims to be teaching the Arabs about democracy.

Inside Story: Tunisia elections
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamic Ennahda party, and his daugther arrive at a polling station EPA]

Al-Nahda is in. The mathematics of the elections will not be finalised until Tuesday. What is known is that a majority of the overseas seats have gone to al-Nahda – five in France, seven in Germany and several seats of those reserved for the Arab World where voter turnout was nearly twice that recorded in Europe.

Nine months after the popular uprising that ended the authoritarian rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have voted in the first free and fair elections, and the voter turnout has been surprisingly and emphatically high.

A few international observers who have made it to nearly a dozen polling stations in the Sousse region are generally happy with the conduct of the elections. There were electoral indiscretions, including vote buying and using ideological propaganda to queuing voters. In some stations, there were irregularities having to do with lack of training.

It is past 3 am and the Sousse Electoral Observatory is still waiting for the ballot boxes to come from 441 polling stations. The result from one station will be read in 30 minutes. It will be a painstaking counting that will continue for several hours. Ballot boxes are being transported with army escort all over the country. In the Sousse Independent Electoral Observatory branch, five officers representing the army, the police and the national guard, are in charge of security.

The officers are in almost constant contact with the vehicles transporting the ballot boxes, getting continuous updates of the whereabouts of the precious cargo of the incipient democracy.

In a sign of the new and exciting times, the electoral branches are counting, in most regions, in the spacious buildings of the dissolved ruling party. In these buildings, the electoral observatory has dozens of young cadres overseeing the operation, supplying stationary, additional ballots and even ballot boxes in some stations.

Outside the building, large screens are broadcasting continuous talk shows covering the elections with the country’s new political stars, pundits and international visitors engaging in analysis of the momentous event.

Political forces

So far, the surprise confirmed is that al-Nahda is the political force to be reckoned within the country. The mood seems to be one of general acceptance. But the victory will be weighty and no doubt, it will land the Islamists with a political workshop for further moderating their politics, strategies and discourse. As the major political party, scrutiny will be directed to everything it does and says.

The Congress for the Republic, and with modest finances, has had a good election according to preliminary indications. Had Moncef Marzouki, the party’s leader, invested more resources in the country’s rural areas, he would have collected more seats. Marzouki is known for his human rights activism, and the results should boost his aspiration for the presidency.

It remains to be seen whether Nejib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) will be performing solidly in his own seat, previously presumed safe in the Tunis two district. It would be a huge embarrassment if he came even second in his own territory. Whether he is being punished for rushing into accepting a portfolio in the first post-revolution administration cannot be confirmed. Tunis two, the district of death, was not going to be easy. His PDP may be on its way to being outclassed by the Congress for the Republic. Chebbi, whilst charismatic, should now let Maya Jeribi, the only female party leader, run the party without his tutelage.

Hamma Hammami’s POCT may be also polling well, perhaps rewarded for consistency despite demonisation from anti-communist voices. Hammami, along with Marzouki, is potentially a partner in a prospective alliance led by the al-Nahda Party. Hammami was a victim of the Ben Ali dictatorship like all other key political figures taking over new Tunisia.

New landscape

The other party that was expected to do well may be headed for less disappointment than the PDP. Mustafa bin Jaafar’s Forum is awaiting the results with anxiety. Its leaders have been expecting results that would firm them up as the party second only to the al-Nahda. The next 12 hours will be crucial for further reordering the country’s political landscape.

The Initiative or Mubadara Party, led by a former Ben Ali foreign minister, is indicated to have polled surprisingly well. It remains to be seen whether the Ettajdid and the so-called modernist bloc do well, at least by a minority but committed anti-Nahda voices.

The architects of the electoral strategy have put in place a scheme that disperses votes amongst more than 100 seats. So far, the voters have showed cautiousness by voting for known political parties and figures, including figures heading newly licensed political parties.

The next few weeks will reveal new political coalitions before the Constituent Assembly is opened for the business of constitution framing.

A minute of silence is observed as the Sousse Branch’s chief gives the green light for beginning the announcement of the early results from results tallied up in polling centres. Praise is heaped on the national army, credited now with protection of the electoral operation as it did with the revolution on January 14. The trickle of results seem to confirm Nahda’s rise is unstoppable.

It is going to be a long day here in Sousse and the rest of Tunisia.

But the ambiance of a celebratory mood is modest. No one is claiming to be teaching other Arabs democracy. To the contrary, young representatives of the country’s EU trained and funded first electoral observation NGO, Muraqiboun, say they are happy to cooperate with Libyans and Egyptians to consolidate democratic learning.

Congratulations, Tunisia.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.