Some Thoughts: Tunisian Political Trends and Charts

In a recent poll (conducted on 5-11 May) asked Tunisians who they plan to vote for in that country’s (supposedly) upcoming constituent assembly elections. The results reveal the spread of ideological tendencies within the Tunisian public in general, as well as the challenges facing left-wing parties there. They also lay out how the Tunisians are relating to their country’s roughly 70 political parties, most of which have been founded and organized only since January.

In summary: It suggests political polarization between rural and urban, southern and northern-eastern Tunisians, as well as on (and between) class lines and that the public is not familiar with newly registered political parties. The Islamist an-Nahdha party is the single most popular party but left-wing parties as a whole take a larger share of the public’s sympathies. 12.6% of respondents said they planned not to vote. The top five parties were:

  • 30% for an-Nahdha
  • 29.2% for PDP (Democratic Progressive Party, center-left/social democratic)
  • 11.2% for FDTL (Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom, social democratic)
  • 9.2% for the PCOT (Tunisian Communist Workers Party, Marxist-Leninist)
  • 4.8% for CPR (Congress for the Republic, center-left)

All of the top parties but an-Nahdha are left-wing parties, although to varying degrees. A large part of the sample was undecided revealing that the wide proliferation of parties since January (nearly 70 in all) has probably disoriented many voters who are likely struggling to familiarize themselves with many new parties and leaders in a tense political environment. The top parties are among the oldest opposition parties that operated clandestinely under Ben Ali (CPR is the only one founded in the last ten years, the others were all formed in the 1980s or even late 1970s). Name recognition matters. A previous poll (taken by the same consultancy, Sigma) asked respondents which parties they knew of (not supported): 46.4% couldn’t name any, 27% for RCD, 25.8% for an-Nahdha, 24.7% for PDP, 7.1% for CPR, 5% for FDTL and 4.8% for PCOT (the results are here; all very interesting). The results are unsurprising given the novelty of many of the parties and the country’s recent history (only eight parties were legal before the uprising and politics were tightly controlled).

The results reveal that the Tunisian left has a broad spread. To put it simplistically, there are many parties with similar ideologies and platform points in the center-left and many socialist or communist parties with sincere ideological differences and disagreements on tactics and strategy. On the last point, cooperation with Islamists is particularly controversial, with some parties allowing it for tactical reasons and others rejecting it in principal and calling for coalitions of secular/progressive parties to counter the Islamists’ significant influence. This has caused splits among some parties, including the PCOT  (a Marxist-Leninist, Hoxhaist part that received relatively significant media attention for its role in the uprising) whose collaboration with Islamists contributed to the formation of a whole new party, the PSG. This opens opportunities for the Islamist tendency, which has a flagship party in a way that the center left and far left do not (though they clearly have their staples as seen in the poll). By count, the leftist parties heavily outnumber Islamist ones (there are over ten left-wing parties and only 3-4 Islamist ones). Individual leftist parties command small bases of support but as a whole add up to a significant part of the whole. The weakness of “centrist” and right-wing parties reflects the newness of this set.

Yet the Islamist trend is not unitary, either. Aside from an-Nahdha there are a number of much smaller Islamist parties that have formed in the last five years and in the last few months, many of them splinters from an-Nahdha itself. Some of these are more moderate or conservative on social affairs and they have differences on economic affairs (the Islamist parties, in general, tend to lean more toward the right on economic affairs). Obviously an-Nahdha has better name recognition and support than the other Islamist parties. The poll showed that significant portions of respondents were favorable toward a deepening the countries ties with the Arab-Muslim world and a wider space for religion in the public sphere (more religious education and large minorities responded favorably to questions on the return of polygamy (with significant regional variation), for instance) while at the same time showing overwhelming support for women’s rights and equality. About 70% of those polled said they preferred for mosques to not be used for political propaganda during elections. An-Nahdha and other Islamist tendencies stand to gain from these results, especially given how soon the election is. The Islamist parties tend to position themselves as guardians of the country’s Arab-Islamic identity, which they argue is under siege from secularism and liberalism (some of the left-wing parties actively promote the arabisant origins of their leaders or their interest in Arab affairs, possibly partly in response to this). Still, splits within the Islamist trend, and the high probability that left-wing parties will attempt to pool resources and band together makes it likely that an-Nahdha will have to continue to work with left-wing and secular parties (through the Committee for the Protection of the Goals of the Revolution) to consolidate what electoral gains it does make — even as mutual suspicion exists between Islamists and particular parts of the political left. The other emergent parties, if they build up support before the referendum, may play a role in filling out the margins of things but chances are about even that these parties will end up supporting or banding with larger, better known parties (especially some of the youth-focused and Arab nationalist parties). Some from the official class have voiced concern that a victory for an-Nahdha would precipitate a coup, on the part of “people of the coast,” or Ben Ali supporters (and others) poorly disposed to the Islamist tendency.

Below are two charts introducing select parties of the left-wing and Islamist trend in Tunisia. These are not meant to be exhaustive or definitive (eventually they may include all of the leftist and Islamist parties that emerge but for now these are most notable ones), but to provide a general introduction to these elements of the Tunisian political scene in English. The information is compiled from party platforms, pamphlets, Facebook pages, news interviews with party leaders/officials and other sources in the public domain. Readers are encouraged to offer corrections (especially for the descriptions under the “notes” field; there may be misinterpretations of party literatures, etc.), additions, clarifications either in the comments section or by email. These are intended to put into English information on parties that have not received extensive attention in English writing on Tunisia since January. Click the image or the PDF links to enlarge.

View PDF.

View PDF. [Note: There is no column for status pre-2011 here because none of the parties were legal under Ben Ali.]

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