Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, announced Sunday that it would not field a candidate in presidential elections scheduled for November 23, leaving the race open for the secular opposition. According to party spokesman Zied Ladhari, “the Ennahda party does not want to dominate the political scene and will concentrate uniquely on the legislative elections.”
Both upcoming ballots – legislative elections are scheduled for October 26 – are critical to resolving the country’s current political and security crises. They will mark the end to an interim government in place since January, when the previous Ennahda-run administration was forced to step down. The Islamist party first took power with a broad mandate after the first democratic election to be held after the ouster of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Support quickly soured however with the spread of Islamist extremists, to whom Ennahda, concerned with maintaining its pious support base, took a lax approach. Now, Tunis, bolstered by a newly adopted national constitution, hopes the fall elections will finalize the country’s transition to secular democracy – and reassure international observers and investors.
Despite the governing crisis that led to its ouster earlier this year, Ennahda is primed for a rebound. (Opinion polls show the Islamist party neck in neck with the main opposition party, Nidea Tounes, with 30% approval ratings.) The decision to step out of the presidential race has invited speculation that Ennahda is eying a possible coalition with Nida Tounes via a shared candidate. The strategy makes sense. Ennahda is still reeling from its disastrous first run in office and would have a hard time nabbing the presidency. Hints of the party’s strategy were apparent during early negotiations with the secular opposition over the date and form of general elections. Ennahda representatives successfully insisted that legislative elections be held before the presidential ballot, confident of the party’s ability to make a strong showing. (In contrast, the opposition wanted the presidential election to be first.)
In response to rumors of Ennahda’s backdoor wrangling to nominate a coalition presidential candidate, critics are railing that voters are being robbed of a true choice. Though, voters may be few. A massive government campaign to register voters this summer was met with widespread apathy – less than 150,000 people registered in two weeks. (Tunisia has an estimated eight million eligible voters.) Despite, or perhaps because of, such apathy, Ennahda could sweep the legislative elections. Meaning Tunisia’s next government may look much the previous one. (In 2011, Ennahda took power as part of a ruling triumvirate, alongside two secular parties, but quickly overshadowed its coalition allies.)
Furthermore, the Islamist party is set to control the premiership; according to Tunisia’s new constitution, the parliament selects the prime minister, who will wield more power than the president. (One notable example: the prime minister has the power to override presidential vetoes.) With little sign that the opposition is strong enough to challenge Ennahda, it looks like Tunisians will soon have a chance to see what an Ennahda government — part two — looks like.