Tunisian Constituent Assembly elections: Ennahda victory prepares further uprisings

The conservative Islamist party Ennahda won a majority of seats (90 out of 217) in the elections to the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia on October 23. This result has sent many on the left into confusion. This represents a shift to the right, some argue. How can the Tunisian revolution end up in a victory for the right wing, ask others. Scandalously some “modernists” argue that “elections were premature”.

The Western media has given a biased and much distorted view of this election. Even before any results had actually been announced the headlines already boldly proclaimed: ‎”Tunisia election turnout more than 90%”; “Massive turnout for Tunisia's historic poll; “Tunisia Election Vote Sees Big Turnout”; “Huge turnout in Tunisia's Arab Spring election”; “Tunisian election turnout exceeds all expectations”.

Massive abstention

As finally – after a long delay and many cancelled press conferences – provisional official results were announced this proved not to have been the case. There were 7,569,824 Tunisians eligible to vote. Of those, 4,123,602 (54.47%) actually registered to vote. Of those registered,3,205,845 cast a vote (77.75 %) and an additional 496,782 people who had no registered went to vote. This makes a total of 3,702,627 voters, which represents a 42% turn out - very far from the “festival of democracy” which the capitalist media talked about, and certainly less than half of the much celebrated “90% turn out”.

The reason for this massive abstention is clear. Nine months after the revolution which brought down the hated dictatorship of Ben Ali, a large number of Tunisians think that even though they now have “democracy”, nothing has really changed. The Tunisian revolution, which started in Sidi Bouzid on December 17th, 2010 and led to the overthrow of Ben Ali by the revolutionary action of the masses on January 14th this year, was a struggle which combined political demands (freedom, democracy, an end to corruption) with social and economic demands (for jobs, a future for young people, education, land reform, against the looting of the country by the ruling Trabelsi clique). None of those social and economic demands have been addressed and the people do not trust that any of the existing parties will address them.

An opinion poll (pdf report) carried out in August by the Tunisian Polling and Statistic Data Processing Institute (ISTI), revealed this very clearly. Over 60% declared they were “dissatisfied” with the economic situation of the country (an increase from 57% in April) and 70% were dissatisfied with the performance of the political parties (up from 64% in April). When asked to name parties that they “appreciated”, 57% answered “none”. The level of rejection of all political parties was even reflected amongst those who said in August that they would vote, 65% of whom had not yet decided who they would vote for, and even among those who had decided 47% said they may change their choice.

The mood of anger and dissatisfaction at what the revolution has achieved was particularly marked in the cities of the interior, which were the strongholds of the revolution, and even greater amongst the unemployed youth who were at its forefront.

The correspondents of the French Communist Party paper L’Humanité captured this mood very well by talking to people in a number of towns and cities in the South West. In Sidi Bouzid, they interviewed Djamaï Bouallegue, 24, a market fruit seller like Bouazizi, the young man who set himself on fire sparking off the revolution, told them: “after January 14 we can speak more freely, it is true, but my situation has not changed. My life is still very hard.” He told them he would not vote: “I do not trust any party. I do not believe in promises without guarantees”. Nadar Hamdouni, an unemployed graduate who headed one of the many independent lists standing in the election, agreed on the main point: “What happened in Sidi Bouzid was not a revolution, but a social uprising. But afterwards, nothing has changed. The youth feel the same frustration, the same despair”.

In Regueb, another stronghold of the revolution, we see the same story. Nomen Ben Mohammed Kadri, 34, unemployed graduate earns 45 euro a month to maintain his family of three, of which 30 euro go on purchasing drugs for his elderly father, leaving them with 12 cents per person per day. He has set up camp outside the Town Hall for the past 200 days demanding a job. He also said he was not going to vote: “The Tunisian revolution hasn’t changed anything regarding inequality. I will not vote as long as I have not won my right to work.” Elsewhere,Nemri Bessam who works as a private security officer at a resort in Hammamet is also adamant: “The revolution will not be completed as long as we don’t have jobs”.

This is not the kind of abstention that comes from lack of interest in politics, but one that comes mainly from the rejection of existing political parties and a strong feeling that the revolution has not achieved its aims. Nemri’s friend, Soufine, an unemployed decorator, sums it up with strong words for “all those parties which have mushroomed on the scene like puppets to speak in our name,” whatever the result of the elections, he said, “a second revolution is needed”.

2011 Tunisian Constituent Assembly

“Secularism” or social issues?

Even with such a high level of abstention, the results of the election also tell an interesting story. The “traditional left” parties did much worse than expected. The social-democratic Ettakol (the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedom) only got 21 seats, the former Maoist turned centre-left Progressive Democratic Party got 17 and the Democratic Modernist Pole (a coalition around the former Communist Party, Ettajdid) got only 5 out of a total of 217 seats. All of these parties were legal under Ben Ali and basically provided it with a “democratic” façade. They played no role in the revolution and all of them participated prominently in the different “transitional” governments after the fall of Ben Ali, which fell one after the other overthrown by the mass movement from below.

In fact, the only “progressive” party to do relatively well in the elections was the Congress for the Republic (CPR), which had been banned under Ben Ali, its leader forced into exile and which did not dirty its hands in any of the provisional governments. The CPR got 30 seats and came second after Ennahda (after the disqualification of a number of Aridha lists).

All parties which had played the role of “loyal opposition” to the old regime were severely punished and none of the attempts to create a new legitimate party out of the ashes of the old ruling RCD got off the ground.

Furthermore, these “progressive” parties centred their whole campaign around the issue of the “threat of Islamism”, represented by Ennahda and in defence of “modernism” and “secularism” (laïcité), not mentioning any of the pressing social and economic issues which sparked off the revolution and which are at the top of the list of priorities for the Tunisian masses. To many, the insistence on secularism and modernism as the basis of the attack against Ennahda sounded very much like the rhetoric used by both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

The unemployment rate is 18% for the general population and 37% among the youth and there are over 180,000 university graduates without a job.

As one writer put it in the Nawaat website, the battle on those questions “had been lost in advance, as the Tunisian people did not take to the streets in order to demand equality in succession rights or the freedom of expression for artists. The Tunisians from Regueb came out to demand the right to work, an equality of opportunities, in other words, a decent life here! It was in regard to the questions of jobs, social justice, the economic model required or the distribution of wealth that they were waiting for a message from left-wing parties. But the wait was in vain”.

The two parties (PDP and PDM) which were more virulent in their attacks against Ennahda from the perspective of classless “modernism” suffered the worst defeat. A campaign of clear demands relating to these issues would have allowed left-wing organizations to win away a large section of those who voted for Ennahda, which one centred on questions of identity (“modern” versus “arabo-Islamic”, etc) could not appeal to.

This was clearly demonstrated by the unexpected success of the Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition) list, by London based, former Ennahda businessman and TV channel owner Hechmi Hamdi. He stood on a demagogic programme promising free healthcare for all, free public transport for the elderly, economic development and above all universal unemployment benefit of 200 Dinars, and used his profile as someone from Sidi Bouzid, from the interior, not from the “Tunis elite”. Before six of its lists got disqualified for “irregularities,” Aridha had won 28 seats, making it the third largest party and it came first in the birth place of the revolution Sidi Bouzid, where it got 59% of the votes. In the end, Aridha will have 19 seats.

Ennahda reassures big business and imperialism

In the context of this kind of campaign, Ennahda, which had played no role in the revolution which overthrew Ben Ali, was able to play its cards strongly: a party which was underground and suffered heavy repression under Ben Ali, a party which was a victim of the attacks of the wealthy establishment “modernist” elite in Tunis, which was “defending the right to wear the hijab” allegedly threatened by the pro-French “secularists”, etc. Above all, this was a party with a strong network of activists in the working class and poor areas throughout the country (it came first in all electoral districts except Sidi Bouzid), large amounts of funding from supportive businessmen and middle class elements as well as support and publicity from Qatar (through Al Jazeera) and possibly Saudi Arabia, as well as being able to use the mosques for political propaganda. At the same time, Ennahda’s programme also appealed to the masses of the poor through promises of job creating and a reduction of regional inequality.

The vote for Ennahda also represents to a certain extent, a degree of tiredness amongst sections of the population. After nearly a year of constant stress and struggle, disruption of normal life, mass mobilizations, chaos, clashes, etc. which have not fundamentally changed anything in terms of jobs, education and living standards, and faced with the lack of any serious alternative on how to achieve those aims on the part of the left, some amongst the less politically active yearn for some sort of stability, a return to normality.

Another factor we have to add is the confusion created by the extreme splintering of the different political parties and lists competing with each other (655 independent lists, 830 political parties and 34 coalitions) and the very complex extreme proportional representation system used which meant that 1,392,657 votes (37.6% of those who voted) went to parties and lists which did not get any representation, which is not far from the 1,5014,18 votes of Ennahda (40.5% of those who voted).

Having won 41% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, Ennahda leaders were quick to reassure big business and imperialism. Party leader Ghannouchi went straight away to meet with a delegation from the Tunis stock exchange and promised them more public offerings of state owned companies (more privatizations).“We wanted to reassure them that we are on their side and that we want to play a positive role in the Tunisian economy,” said Moaz Ghannouchi, an economist and the son of the leader.

After the meeting with the Islamist leaders, the stock exchange rallied. Meanwhile, party secretary and candidate for Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali was meeting with representatives of the UTICA bosses federation. He reassured them that no Islamic rules would be introduced which interfered with the country’s powerful tourist business and that, “The market is central to Nahda’s economic philosophy as we can see in its programme.”

At the same time, Ennahda, which does not have an overall majority in the Constituent Assembly, quickly offered a coalition to the CPR and Ettatakol.

Tunisian capitalists and foreign imperialists were not worried about these results and in fact had been working on the leaders of all political parties, including Ennahda, prior to the elections. Ennahda’s general secretary had travelled to the US and met with senators McCain and Lieberman, no doubt to reassure them of the party’s commitment to “Western democracy” and the “market economy”.

A Western diplomat in Tunis was quoted by Reuters as saying that: “we will pay close attention to what they implement but on the economic side we have no cause for concern. Our biggest concern is long delays in government formation… A lot of their backers are from the merchant class who are keen on the idea of a liberal economic policy and they don't have serious plans to change the economic policy of previous governments.” As a matter of fact, imperialism was already working with Ennahda before the election, and particularly the French ruling class, with important economic and political interests in Tunisia, had been working hard to court the Islamists.

According to a Tunisian political analysis quoted by L’Humanité: “emissaries of the Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay (the presidency and the foreign affairs ministry) have come regularly to Tunis in the last months, combining meetings with the cadres of the Islamists and dinners with influential businessmen. But in the last weeks the situation has been clarified even further: France votes Ennahda”.

French imperialism is trying to restore its standing in the North African country, severely bruised by its close, almost incestuous links with Ben Ali, and they see the leaders of Ennahda as the best guarantee for the interests of Capital in Tunisia.

Wave of strikes and social protests

Now, the new Ennahda coalition government will have to face the enormous social and economic problems which provoked the Tunisian revolution less than a year ago and which, if anything, have become worse and none of which can be solved within the limits of capitalism. They will also have to do so in the face of a population which distrusts all political parties, which feels that the revolution has been stolen or derailed, but which is also aware of its own revolutionary power. The last nine months have witnessed an explosion of strikes and protests in all sectors of society which is still continuing.

There have been strikes in the banking sector, in the textile factories, the post office, the railways, the airports, among the judges, police officers, etc. demanding the removal of corrupt and authoritarian managers, wage increases and improvements in working conditions. After the start of the university year there has also been a wave of demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins at different faculties and university campuses demanding the removal of rectors and directors, most of them linked to the old RCD regime.

It is only a few days since the Constituent Assembly elections and there has already been a three day strike of postal workers, and a national strike of hotel and tourist agency workers with militant demonstrations in many cities (like this one in Sousse). Brewery and Refrigeration Company of Tunis (SFBT) workers are also out on strike, as are workers at the Italian oil company ENI who are demanding permanent contracts. The working class and the youth feel confident and are organizing through direct revolutionary action to achieve their aims.

Among them are the unemployed graduates who played a key role during the whole revolution. The Union of Unemployed Graduates (UDC) has recently held its national meeting in Sousse with the participation of 500 people, representing thousands from all over the country. A joint demonstration with left-wing trade union activists managed to gather over 10,000 in the capital Tunis on August 15, demanding jobs, social justice, and punishment for those responsible for the old regime.

In the context of an economy which is slowly grinding to a halt, a 28% fall in foreign direct investment and a global recession of capitalism affecting mainly Europe, which is the main destination of Tunisia’s exports and the main source of foreign investment and tourists, Ennahda will find itself in an impossible situation.

New conflicts are inevitable, in which the class questions will come to the fore. A 27 year old unemployed voter of Ennahda from Kasserine, interviewed by L’Humanité put it clearly: “if (Ennahda’s leader) Ghannouchi does not keep his promises, he will meet the same fate as Ben Ali”. Ennahda leaders are acutely aware of this, and this is one of the reasons for their enthusiasm for a coalition government. They do not want to be seen as solely responsible for the policies they are preparing to put in place.

Revolutionary alternative missing

What is missing from the situation, and was sorely missing at the peak of the revolutionary movement, is a revolutionary organization able to offer a clear alternative to complete the democratic and economic tasks of the revolution. This can only be done through the expropriation of the interests of big business and imperialism, with a clear break with capitalism and the old regime.

The most advanced of the left-wing parties in Tunisia, the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (PCOT) and the left-wing Arab nationalist Movement of the Democratic Patriots won three and two seats in the national assembly respectively. The main problem facing the PCOT is that at all crucial moments of the revolution it has failed to take a clear lead. When power was in the streets and the revolutionary committees were thrown up from below, with the provisional governments which followed the fall of Ben Ali suspended in mid-air, the PCOT should have taken the initiative to convene a national meeting of the revolutionary committees with the aim of taking power. Instead of this, the initiative was retaken by the capitalist forces through the creation of all sorts of “committees for the protection of the revolution” and “higher instances for the realization of the aims of the revolution” which channelled everything towards the election of a Constituent Assembly in order to ensure bourgeois stability.

The programme of the PCOT in these elections contained many important progressive demands, but these were not part of a more general programme of struggle for socialism. In fact, the word socialism is not even mentioned in the whole programme. While the party calls for the “nationalization of strategic sectors of the economy”, and for these to be put under the “democratic control of its workers”, at the same time it talks about a “balanced economic development of the key sectors of the economy… as part of a plan to meet the needs of the people and raise Tunisia to the level of developed countries”. The problem is that planning of the economy can only be implemented if the means of production are taken into public ownership, something which the PCOT programme contradicts when it talks of the “submission of the private sector to the requirements of national development and needs of the Tunisian people: development of production, job creation, rights of workers and employees, respect for the environment”. As a matter of fact, under capitalism, companies work on the basis of making profits, not satisfying the needs of the Tunisian people, and the only way you can force them to do otherwise is… by nationalising them under workers’ control. And that must be stated clearly.

This reluctance to speak openly about socialism, the talk instead of a “patriotic and peoples’ economic choice”, the discussion about dropping “Communist” from the party name (and actually standing in the elections under the name of “revolutionary alternative” instead of the more well known PCOT party name), show clearly the shortcomings of the Stalinist two-stage theory. This is the idea that there is some sort of separate “progressive”, “patriotic” and “democratic” stage in the revolution which it is necessary to fulfil before one can struggle for socialism and workers’ power. This is even more clearly revealed when it comes to the party’s political programme which talks of the installation of a “democratic, modern, republican and people’s” regime as the main aim of the revolution. This is to be achieved through a “parliamentary regime based on proportional representation”, the “independence of the judiciary”, separation of religion from the state and politics, “guarantees for individual rights and respect of human rights”, etc … in other words, a bourgeois democracy!

What needs to be understood is that the democratic and social demands of the Tunisian revolution, for freedom, jobs, social justice, etc., cannot be achieved within the limits of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. The Ben Ali regime was not simply a dictatorship; it was a capitalist dictatorship which guaranteed the profits of private national and multinational companies. In order for the Tunisian people to really achieve the aims of the revolution, and genuine democratic freedom, the economy must be taken over by the people and run by the working people themselves for the interests of the majority. This basic democratic aspiration, clashes head on with the interests of the capitalist class.

The democratic and national tasks of the Tunisian revolution are inextricably linked to the socialist and internationalist tasks. Genuine democracy starts with the confiscation of the wealth of the Trabelsi clan and all the hangers-on of the old Ben Ali regime, the expropriation of the multinational companies which benefited from and collaborated with the regime and the repudiation of the foreign debt.

Such a programme cannot be implemented by this Constituent Assembly, which has been set up by the ruling class with the express aim of putting an end to the revolutionary turmoil in the country and establishing the legitimacy of bourgeois democratic institutions.

In the next few months, the aspirations of the revolutionary workers and youth of Tunisia will enter into conflict with the Ennahda coalition government, preparing a new phase of the revolution. The main task is to prepare a revolutionary alternative which would be up to the tasks posed by new uprisings.

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