Tunisia’s elections — pre-departure thoughts

I’ll be heading to Tunisia beginning tomorrow to cover the elections (on October 23) to form a Constituent Assembly — the body that will draft a new Constitution for the country’s next phase. More to come once I’m on the ground, but a few thoughts before heading off about things to look for as the vote nears.

- The supposed secular vs. Islamist split: A great deal of the buzz so far has been over the alleged war of ideas on the streets of Tunisia, between those who would prefer to see a secular state and those who would rather that the new draft Constitution draw more heavily on Islam. The story goes like this: Tunisia’s historical character as a secular state is being threatened by Al Nahda, an Islamically-grounded party outlawed under Ben Ali that that has had a renaissance (no pun intended) in the post-revolutionary days. Almost all polling so far indicates that the party’s moderate Islamic platform will carry about 30 percent of votes — perhaps more, given that there is a large pool of undecided voters. That makes the party the largest single political player on the very diverse Tunisian stage (there are some 100 parties now officially constituted, 60 of which will field candidates for the Constituent Assembly — plus scores of independents.) Meanwhile, the more left-leaning ‘secular’ vote seems like it could be split between a number of smaller parties, perhaps shifting the balance in favor of the Islamist-leaning camp.

Recent high profile protests by hardliners have rocked the streets of Tunis in recent days, giving credence to the idea that a Islamist-Secular split has emerged. Most recently, an odd controversy erupted when Salafists attacked a TV channel, angry that it had featured the animated film Persepolis, about a young Iranian girl who flees that country’s revolution for France. Their complaints specifically were that the film insulted their beliefs by caricaturing God in cartoon form. The television station apologized, but the media authority still opened an investigation, alarming secular Tunisians who worried about censorship and press freedom.

What I find most fascinating about the supposed polarization is how self fulfilling a prophecy this could be. In my initial interview this week with regional experts, I was shocked at how many of them seemed to take this polarization for granted — and assume that there was little middle ground between the two groups. I’ll be looking into this more once I’m in Tunisia, but for the moment, all the evidence I’ve seen actually indicates something of the opposite. Parties’ goals almost all stipulate a moral role for Islam in the construction of the state, even as the democratic order is given space to flourish. To be sure, there will be grand debates and big compromises to come when the new constitutional body is founded. But there is a middle that seems to me to have been eclipsed by the more visible extremes — on either side.

Yet the assumption that these two groups are irreconcilable is already cemented into the narrative. And it seems to me to be mirrored not just in Tunisia but elsewhere there Arab Spring is sparking debates about a  new kind of Arab governance. My hope is that the Tunisian elections will prove this dichotomy to be, as Obama loves to say, a “false choice” between the secular and the religious.

- It’s the economy, stupid. The protests that unseated Ben Ali were hardly the last to rock Tunisia in 2011. In fact, the striking and demonstrating has gone on, in a sputtering sort of way, ever since last December. There are lots of things one could attribute this to — a desire not to see the gains of the revolution rolled back, efforts by competing ideologies to gain public space, and general frustration. But what nearly everyone seems to agree on is that the dismal state of the economy is motivating at least some of the persistent outrage. Tourism has collapsed, foreign direct investment is way down, and after years of steady GDP growth, this year the economy may even contract.

This may be one of the ironies of the Tunisian revolution: that a political change motivated in part by the lack of jobs and opportunity will actually set back economic progress in some regards. The hope is, of course, that when it does start churning again, the economy will grow in a way that is both faster and more equally beneficial to the country’s 10 million people. Yet in order for that to happen, the coming caretaker governments will need to resolve their differences (whether ideological or social) quite quickly when it comes to crafting economic policy. And the economy itself will need to make some rather heavy structural shifts, opening up industries that take more and better qualified employees — think services, medical care, and outsourcing.

The interim government’s new economic strategy, leaked late last month to the Tunisian press agency (TAP) speaks to these goals — focusing on unemployment and a kick start for tourism and foreign investment. Implementing is of course the tricky bit, as always. And continuity will also be a challenge, as the incoming assembly may want to revise or refocus certain parts of the plan. In the meantime, investors say they are holding off taking big decisions about their businesses in Tunisia. In the boardroom, uncertainty over a country’s economic direction is a real buzz kill. The streets may feel so too!

- The role of independent candidates: Independent candidates may well play a significant role in the upcoming vote, particularly in regions where an independent candidate is a public persona or has strong regional social ties. Given how little time there has been for political parties to constitute themselves following Ben Ali’s departure, there is a whole cadre of prominent Tunisians who are betting that they can do as least as well standing on their own as trying to cobble together a party. Should a significant number of independents win (or even if a very diverse group of smaller parties win), the big question mark hangs over the assembly members’ abilities to form coalitions and unite around a platform for a new Constitution.

Stay tuned!

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