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In Tunisia, Political Parties Look to the Past to Win Future Elections

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Tunisian journalists hold their press cards and shout slogans against the prime minister during a protest at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis on April 4, 2019. Photo AFP

The question looming over Tunisia’s upcoming parliamentarian and presidential elections, scheduled for 6 October and 17 November 2019 respectively, is a simple but unsettling one: What if the old regime wins? The question has become increasingly relevant since the Free Destourian Party (PDL), a political outsider, ranked third in recent opinion polls, behind coalition party Ennahda and Tahya Tunis, a new party to be led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, but ahead of ruling party Nidaa Tounes.

Rising political star PDL can best be described as counter-revolutionary, deeply rooted as it is in the former Democratic Constitutional Rally (known by its French initials RCD), the party of deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, which ruled from Tunisia’s independence in 1956 until the regime’s overthrow in 2011.

“Dissolving the RCD, instead of developing problem-solving mechanisms within the political party, was a desperate attempt to erase a part of the country’s history,” said Abir Moussi, PDL’s controversial leader, in an interview last year.

“We call it a devolution rather than a revolution,” Houda Saadi, director of PDL’s think tank, told Fanack. “Revolutions are supposed to change things for the better, but the 2011 revolts were driven by foreign powers and plunged the country into chaos, a lawless anarchy.”

PDL’s election programme is drenched in historical symbolism and references to ‘the heroic past’ of Habib Bourguiba, the former president who founded the Neo-Destour Party in 1934. “We envision founding a third republic, based on a new constitution,” Saadi said. The first republic lasted from 1956 till 2014.

“The current constitution is the product of foreign influences and domestic lobbies, not really Tunisian,” she added, referring to the Muslim Democratic party Ennahda, PDL’s archenemy and allegedly funded by Qatar.

“The parliament wields too much power; they are holding the country hostage over reforms. We need to restore the balance between the parliament and the president,” she explained. “Our constitution will be based on democratic values and guarantee protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“It is nationalism but in a superficial and contrived manner,” Hatem Mrad, a political scientist at the University of Carthage and founder of the Tunisian Association of Political Studies, characterized the PDL’s stance. “They [the PDL] deny the revolution, see it as a personal insult, and now they want to win back their country. The conspiracy theory is proof of their inability to respond; it shows they do not have any substantial argument.”

Moussi, who was charged with a tear gas attack on a lawyer during the 2011 uprisings and with tax-evasion in 2018, portrays herself as a proud member of a Destourian family. “They transferred a deep-seated love for the flag of the nation, for former president Habib Bourguiba and the insignia of the republic to me,” she said.

Political space for nostalgia

Skillfully playing the martyr card, Moussi knows how to get media attention and use the coverage to whip up the party’s base, generate interest in the party’s ideas and stoke the belief that ‘the whole world is against them’. The Tunisian media, eager to explain this new phenomenon, tends to be PDL friendly, apparently afraid of missing out on the dynamics that could propel Moussi to the presidency.

Paradoxically, Moussi’s anti-revolutionary party, said to be capitalizing on the fatigue with change and on nostalgia, is proposing a second revolution to its potential voters. Whereas surveys indeed show mass discontent with the non-functioning political system, there was never a golden era of trust.

‘The youth, who had been at the frontline during the revolution and who had courageously challenged Ben Ali’s killing machine, are now disappointed by the failure of the successive transitional governments to realize their promises,’ al-Jazeera stated back in 2013.

Jaouhar Ben Mbark, coordinator of the civil-society Doustourna network and a well-known media commentator, described the ‘Moussi effect’. “It’s a virtuous circle,” he said. “She is ‘a media celeb’, which might affect the polls and increase her popularity and credibility.”

The question, however, is whether Moussi will really capture the electorate. Since the first post-revolutionary elections in 2011, Tunisian ballots have been characterized by increased disinterest and voter apathy.

“Deeds are better than words, is our motto,” said Saadi, when asked what makes her party different from Nidaa Tounes. “Nidaa Tounes was not pure RCD but merely a hotchpotch of different groups. That’s why it has imploded.”

The power of the past

Established in 2012 by President Beji Caïd Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes is commonly considered the political home of former RCD members. Like the PDL, it aims to expand the president’s power under the Tunisian constitution.

Tacitly thriving on Tunisia’s social instability, while using the existing and deeply rooted RCD networks in the media and political apparatus, Nidaa Tounes won the 2014 elections. However, over the last five years, the party has lost most of its founders, its principal leadership and nearly half of the parliamentary bloc.

Getting things done

“Beji Caïd Essebsi is an old-school politician, a Machiavellian thinker,” said Mrad, explaining the bigger picture. “It was the RCD infrastructure that helped him into power, and in return he appointed them to key positions in his cabinet. As a consequence, the more democratic figures in his entourage felt sidelined and eventually left the party.”

Following the same logic, courts – some headed by judges appointed under Ben Ali – acquitted former senior Ben Ali officials or overturned many charges against them. In the meantime, Essebsi pushed through a law granting amnesty to Tunisian officials accused of corruption under Ben Ali.

“It’s not a big surprise that we still don’t have a constitutional court,” Khayem Chemli, from Lawyers Without Borders, told Fanack. The lack of a constitutional court, as envisaged in the country’s 2014 constitution, leaves a gap in the system of checks and balances.

Steps to reform the police, administrative apparatus and economy have not been taken either or have been held back by a lack of political will. The country’s ‘deep state’ has remained intact, with some critics qualifying it as a soft restoration of the Ben Ali era.

It appears that figures from Tunisia’s old regime have entered the democratic process and provided the world with a guide on how to make democracy look bad.

It is within this context that the PDL can flourish, while leveraging the benefits of being an outsider.

“Don’t believe the polling hype,” Mrad cautioned. “If they win, they won’t get anything done, people will see through their rhetoric.”

With the elections only months away, many Tunisians will be wondering whether any of the parties they vote for will get something done.

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