By the Blouin News Politics staff

Islamists sidelined as Tunisia presidential runoff nears

by in Africa.

Supporters of Tunisian President and presidential candidate, Moncef Marzouki (portraits) attend a rally in the capital Tunis on December 9, 2014, on the first day of campaigning for Tunisia's second round of the presidential election.

Supporters of presidential candidate Moncef Marzouki attend a rally in  Tunis on Dec. 9, 2014. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia’s top secular party Nida Tounes, led by presidential frontrunner Beji Caid Essebsi, ruled out any alliance with the Islamist party Ennahda on Friday. According to the party’s secretary general Taieb Baccouche, the Free Patriotic Union, Afek Tounes, and Al Moubadara, as well as other independent parties, have all “publicly declared their support” for Nida Tounes, thereby ensuring a majority in parliament.

The announcement comes ten days before the run-off that will determine Tunisia’s next president. Essebsi is facing off against current President Moncef Marzouki after neither candidate managed to obtain over 50% of the vote in the first round.  (Essebsi won 39.46% of votes, compared to 33.43% for Marzouki.) The election was the first since an Ennahda-led government was dissolved this January amidst widespread voter frustration, ceding to an interim, technocrat administration. Ennahda came to power with a broad mandate in the wake of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, but subsequently proved incapable of guiding the country out of economic stagnation. Furthermore, its lax security policies exacerbated the spread of radical Islam and did little to address the specter of terrorism.

Despite its disastrous track record, however, Ennahda has remained in the game. The Islamist party nabbed 69 seats in legislative elections in October, though Nida Tounes dominated with 86 seats. However, Ennahda chose not to field a representative in the presidential race, prompting speculation that the two major parties were debating a possible coalition that would see them unite behind a shared candidate. Though, Friday’s announcement would indicate that Nida Tounes has definitively ruled out an alliance with Ennahda, cementing its secular support base in the process.

But while Nida Tounes looks to be the probable victor come the December 21 runoff, Marzouki, accused by some of his critics of being the de facto Islamist’s candidate, hasn’t given up yet. Also Friday, the Tunisian president accused the media of bias in favor of his opponent and of spreading “lies” about him. (Though, we wonder if the president’s association with Ennahda’s failed administration may be doing him greater harm in voters’ eyes.)

As for Ennahda, which means “renaissance” in Arabic, the party is used to political rebounds. (Just look at its impressive return to the political scene in 2011 after years of exile and imprisonment during Ben Ali’s regime.) Now there is no doubt that it is gearing up, once again, for the role of the opposition. With its significant minority in parliament, it can do a lot to hamstring the incoming government. And if Essebsi wins the runoff, as expected, he will inherit a daunting security situation, crippled economy and a weary and frustrated electorate – not to mention the blame if his party can’t turn things around. Meaning that Ennahda may very well emerge the victor in the end.