Publication Political Parties / Election Analyses - Africa - North Africa - Middle East The Tunisian Elections

A shock for the traditional Left

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Mounir Mrad,

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November 2019

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Präsident Nabil Baffoune gibt eine Pressekonferenz zur Bekanntgabe der Ergebnisse der Präsidentschaftswahlen in Tunesien am 14. Oktober 2019 in Tunis.
President Nabil Baffoune gives a press conference announcing the results of the presidential elections in Tunisia on 14 October 2019 in Tunis. Winner in the runoff was the newcomer and conservative political outsider Kais Said. Anis Mili / AFP

The second parliamentary and presidential elections[1] were held in Tunisia in October 2019 after a mass uprising in January 2011 forced former dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee. In 2014, under the banner of the Popular Front for the Realization of the Goals of the Revolution (Front Populaire pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution), a large part of the radical left joined forces. Different ideological currents belonged to the party alliance: Marxist-Leninists, ex-Communists, Trotskyists, social democrats, and pan-Arabists. The two most important organizations in the alliance were the formerly Maoist United Movement of Democratic Patriots (commonly known as Watad) and the Workers Party of Tunisia (PT), which had once been close to Albania under Enver Hoxha. In 2014, the Popular Front became the fourth strongest party.[2] Its top candidate Hamma Hammami, also Secretary General of the Workers’ Party of Tunisia, came third in the presidential elections in the same year with almost eight percent and over 250,000 votes. Centre-left parties such as Ettayar ad-dimuqrati (Democratic Tendency), Hizb al-jomhouri (Republican Party) or Al-Massar al-dimuqrati (The Democratic Way), the successor of the Tunisian Communist Party, performed weakly in 2014. After the bourgeois parties had formed a "government of national unity" across ideological divides, the Popular Front became the strongest opposition party.

Hopes that the Popular Front could strengthen its position in the 2019 elections in the face of growing social dissatisfaction on the one hand and the collapse of the bourgeois camp on the other were disappointed. Almost half of a year before the election marathon, the Popular Front split into the Coalition of the Popular Front on the one hand and the Coalition of the Front on the other. The former included Watad, the Trotskyist Ligue de gauche ouvrière (LGO) and the Baathist[3] Party of the Socialist Vanguard (known as Ettali'a), while the latter included the Workers’ Party and smaller nationalist groups.

The election results were a shock for the Left, which de facto disappeared from the political map of Tunisia. In the anticipated presidential elections on 25 September—92-year-old President Beji Caid Essebi died on 25 July 2019—Hamma Hamami, who ran for the Coalition of the Front, received just 0.7 percent of the vote. Mongi Rahoui, candidate of the Coalition of the Popular Front, received 0.8 percent of the votes, and the trade unionist Abid Briki, who founded the party Tunisie en avant in the summer of 2018, received just 0.2 percent. Instead, many left-wing voters supported the left-liberal Mohammed Abou of Ettayar ad-dimuqrati or the independent presidential candidate Kais Said.  In the run-off election on 13 October 2019, the conservative and at the same time pro-revolutionary Said prevailed with an overwhelming majority of 72.71 percent against the populist media mogul Nabil Karoui, referred to by many as Tunisia's Berlusconi.

The Left also experienced another fiasco in the parliamentary elections held on 6 October 2019. Only one member each of the Coalition of the Popular Front and the Union démocratique sociale (Social and Democratic Union) [4]succeeded in entering parliament. Ettayar, on the other hand, became the third-strongest force with 22 seats, behind the conservative Islamic Ennahdha with 52 and the populist party of Nabil Karouis, Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia). The party that was founded only four months before the election received 38 mandates. Also new in parliament are the Islamist-populist Coalition of Dignity (I'tilaf al-Karama) with 21 seats, the Ben Ali-nostalgic Parti Destourien Libre (Free Constitutional Party) with 17, and the Nasserist [5] Mouvement du peuple (Movement of the People) with 16 seats. The big loser, apart from the left-wing parties, is the bourgeois government camp, which splintered into several small and very small parties. [6]

What led to the Left’s fragmentation? Where do the young left-wing activists who overthrew the regime in 2011 find themselves today? And how can it be explained that young leftists in particular have shifted to parties like Etta

Rise and Fall of the Popular Front

The reasons for the collapse of the Popular Front are mainly self-made and can be traced back to a power struggle between the two largest parties of the coalition, Watad and the Workers' Party, which had been smouldering for quite some time and erupted at the end of May 2019.

Watad was founded in 1975 in the student milieu as the Democratic Patriots at the University (also called Wataj). Originating from the nationalist movement, the members of Watad gradually adopted fragments of Marxist theory. The Workers' Party under Hamma Hamami—formerly called the Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia—emerged from the fragments of the underground movementm, the Tunisian Worker (al-'amel al-tounisi) in 1986. Both parties trace their ideological roots back to Maoism, but differ in their social analysis and questions of socialist strategy.

On 7 October 2012 thousands of left-wing party supporters celebrated the official foundation of the Popular Front for the Realization of the Goals of the Revolution in Tunis’s Congress Centre. For many leftists, a long-awaited dream came true. They saw a strong, united Left as the key to a progressive turnaround in the post-revolutionary transformation process. While in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the left had cut off only weakly. Since 2011 Tunisia has been ruled by the so-called “Troika”, a government alliance between the election winner of the Islamist Ennahdha and two smaller parties, the centre-left Congrès pour la république (CPR) and Ettakatol, which describes itself as social-democratic. Ennahdha clearly had the upper hand in this governing coalition. It tried to assert its ideals and ideas in the constitutional process. Thus, the first article of the constitution, which states that the religion of the Tunisian state is Islam, was retained.[7] The hegemonic role of Ennahdha, coupled with new political freedoms, boosted more radical forces. This was demonstrated by the party congresses of the Salafist Hizb al-Tahrir, the occupation of Manouba University by Salafists, and the attack of hundreds of radical Islamists on the US embassy a few days before the founding of the Popular Front. The formation of the Popular Front can be seen as a reaction to this period of conflict.

2013 was a tragic year for the Popular Front. Two leaders of its leaders, Chokri Belaid, general secretary of Watad, and Mohammed Brahmi, party leader of the Arab-nationalist Popular Movement, were shot in cold blood on the open street. Hundreds of thousands of Tunisians took part in their funeral processions. The two political murders shaped the identity and narrative of the Popular Front and fostered links between the various groups within the coalition. Many of its members blamed Ennahdha politically, or even of being complicit in both murders. However, the seeds for the conflicts were sown in this phase, which ultimately led to the division of the Popular Front in 2019.

On 26 July, one day after the murder of Mohammed Brahmi, left-wing activists of the Popular Front called for a sit-in in front of the parliament in Bardo under the slogan Errahil (departure). They demanded the resignation of the Troika and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. At the same time, the Front de Salut National (FSN) was formed, in which the parties of the Popular Front cooperated with liberal parties, including Nidaa Tounes. Nidaa was founded in 2012 as a melting pot of the secular establishment and counterweight to Ennahda. Its ranks include personalities of the Bourguiba regime, liberal and left forces, but also former members of the Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique (RCD; the former party of dictator Ben Ali). For this reason, many leftists saw it as a continuation of the old regime. As Nidaa increasingly tried to co-opt the protest movement, many left activists criticized the cooperation between the Popular Front, the Front de Salut National, and the alliance with Nidaa. Some actors of the Popular Front, such as the Trotskyist Ligue de gauche ouvrière (LGO) left the FSN.

The Troika finally resigned due to pressure from the protesters and a technocratic government took over government affairs until the adoption of the constitution in early 2014 and the subsequent holding of elections.  During the election campaign, differences over electoral alliances between the member parties of the Popular Front broke out. The trauma of the political murders weighed heavily on the Popular Front.  Some member parties, especially Watad and al-Qotb al-Dimuqrati (Democratic Pole),[8] therefore advocated a broad electoral alliance. This electoral alliance was meant to make it possible to counter Ennahdha effectively. Another part excluded electoral alliances, especially with Nidaa Tounes.

The runoff vote in the 2014 presidential elections between the former minister and founder of Nidaa, Beji Caid Essebsi, and the left-liberal human rights activist Moncef Marzouki of the Congrès pour la république also triggered controversy. As the CPR was involved in the Troika government, many members saw in Marzouki a candidate from Ennahda and voted for Essebsi as the lesser evil.  For others, the support of the former Bourguiba supporter Essebsi was betrayal of the revolution.  Hama Hammami formulated a vague compromise: the Popular Front would oppose Ennahdhas’s candidate without providing a concrete voting recommendation. Parts of the Popular Front even considered participating in a government led by Nidaa Tounes against Ennahda. Finally, the government alliance between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha, unexpected for everyone, put an end to the debate. 

In the following legislative period, the Popular Front in the opposition gave the appearance of a stable bloc within a volatile parliament, in which bourgeois deputies wandered from faction to faction as they pleased—“party tourism”, as it was called in Tunisia. However, numerous internal conflicts were concealed behind the surface that erupted in the run-up to the elections in autumn 2019.

As early as March, Watad proposed Mongi Rahoui, a member of parliament known for his numerous media appearances and parliamentary speeches, to the Popular Front as a presidential candidate. Watad demanded a grass-roots decision for the nomination of the presidential candidate—in vain. On 19 March 2019, the members of the "Council of General Secretaries" of the Popular Front [9]—the only decision-making body within the party alliance—voted for the renewed candidacy of Hamma Hammami in the presidential elections. Watad was not even invited to this meeting. Since then, the party has complained that it has been excluded from the decision-making structures of the popular front. In protest, nine MPs left the parliamentary bloc of the Popular Front at the end of May, thus losing their faction status. [10]

The conflict eventually led to a dispute over the copyright on the Popular Front’s name. In June 2019, Watad Secretary General Zied Lakdhar revealed that Hamma Hammami had secretly registered the name “Popular Front” under his personal name with the National Institute for Standardization and Industrial Property (INNORPI) in November 2013. In July 2019, in return, a new party, the Popular Front Party, was announced by lesser-known personalities—with Watad encouraging this party’s formation in the background. In August 2019, the Popular Front Party announced its accession to the (electoral) Coalition of the Popular Front.

Hamma Hammami strongly condemned the founding of this party and accused the founders of having appropriated the name of the Popular Front. At the same time, he accused the government of trying to destroy the Popular Front for the Realization of the Goals of the Revolution by granting this party authorization, after failing to do so by fomenting internal conflicts. When asked where he believes the reasons for the split lie, Hammami acknowledged power struggles but also pointed to political differences with Watad: does the Popular Front see its political opponent in the entire ruling coalition of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda or is it primarily against? And does the Popular Front go so far as to cooperate with other components of the elite in its conflict with Ennahda?

Many former members of the Popular Front criticize the democratic deficit and authoritarian leadership of both the Workers’ Party and the party alliance by Hamma Hammami.

A serious problem of the Popular Front and its member parties is the inability to renew their cadres and permanently mobilize young activists politicized by the revolution. For decades, the same personalities have held key positions and claimed a decision-making monopoly. Political scientist Chokri Hmed describes this "partisan authoritarianism" as follows: due to internal democratic deficits, many party activists who joined the parties shortly after 2011 resign after a short period of time. Even if they are elected to high positions, such as in the youth organizations, they do not succeed in exerting influence on party decisions. Another reason for the resignation wave, according to Hmed, is the failure of the radical left to continue the revolutionary process beyond political transformation.[11]

Ettayar: A Social and Democratic Alternative?

In view of the fiasco within the popular front, left-wing sympathizers and activists looked for new alternatives. One of these alternatives was Ettayar al-dimuqrati (Democratic Current). Ettayar was founded in 2013 by Mohammed Abou after the split of the Congrès pour la république (CpR). At that time, the CpR was still part of the Troika. The radical left criticized Mohammed Abou, known as a human rights lawyer and activist under Ben Ali, for serving the Troika as Minister for administrative reform. However, Abou resigned six months after taking up his ministerial post. He complained that he did not have sufficient powers to fight corruption effectively.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Ettayar won barely two percent of the vote and had three deputies in parliament. The focus of their parliamentary activities, as in the 2019 election campaign under the motto "For a strong and just state", was the fight against corruption. In their extra-parliamentary practice, Ettayar members were also active in the fight against corruption. They participated side by side with other elements of the left in the Manich Msamah (“I Do Not Forgive”) campaign against the Law on Economic and Financial Reconciliation (Loi pour la réconciliation économique et financière). President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed this so-called “reconciliation law” in 2015 to obtain an amnesty for corrupt businessmen and civil servants from Ben Ali's time. Critics feared that this would undermine the ongoing Transitional Justice process.

In a country where corruption permeates all areas of politics as well as everyday life, Ettayar won many new members and supporters through the anti-corruption campaign. Part of the traditional left therefore also supported Mohammed Abou in the presidential elections and Ettayar in the parliamentary elections. Their open structures, internal party diversity of opinion, and openness to new ideas made them attractive to young activists. New members feel they can influence the direction and positions of the relatively young party. Particularly in the urban centres, Ettayar has been able to recruit numerous new politically interested members in recent years and train them in its political academy. A few days before the presidential elections, a list of hundreds of well-known activists, bloggers and members of social movements called for the election of Abou circulated. Their motto was: "Push Abou to the left".

Ettayar's election program contained many progressive demands: the elimination of social injustice and inequalities between the different regions in Tunisia, an ecological economy, the implementation of the économie sociale et solidaire (social and solidarity economy). Ettayars's program has parallels with the programs of European social democratic parties. Compared to the neoliberal measures of the post-revolutionary governments since 2011, this is certainly an improvement. The fight against corruption on which Ettayar insists is a vital element in restoring the population's trust in the state. However, these points are insufficient for a radical redistribution of social wealth.

Despite the increase in votes, with its 22 mandates Ettayar is not a heavyweight in the Tunisian political landscape. However, it remains to be hoped that the party, as the strongest opposition force, will be able to make better use of this role than the Popular Front in the previous legislative period. Ettayar's involvement in forming a government with actors such as Ennahdha and Qalb Tounes would be a fatal mistake.

Kais Said: Conservative or Left-Wing?

The winner of the presidential elections was a political outsider. The lecturer in constitutional law Kais Said is undisputedly the big surprise of the presidential elections. In the polls before the first round of the presidential elections, Said was only in third place for a long time. He was barely present in the media, had no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts, waived the state election campaign assistance to which all candidates were entitled, and did not conduct an election campaign in the classic sense. All the greater was the surprise of his outstanding victory in the run-off election, which he won with 72.71 percent of the votes cast, after he had already won the first round with 18 percent of the votes.

His competitor in the run-off election, the media Moghul Nabil Karoui, is considered a populist and corrupt businessman who tries to win the sympathy of the poor with food packages and gifts of money. The whole thing is then presented on Karaoui's private broadcaster, Nessma-TV, Tunisia's largest channel, to the public. Shortly before the election, Karoui was arrested for corruption and released only three days before the run-off. In a leaked audio recording, Karoui can be heard pulling on employees of the NGO I-Watch, which filed the complaint against him: "Why did I found this station at all, of course to control them (meant: the Tunisians), them and their parents; I will show them what freedom means."  

Many leftists voted for Said in the second ballot to prevent Karoui from winning. Yet Said holds extremely conservative positions on many social issues: he is against the abolition of the death penalty and against homosexuality in the public sphere. He opposes the equality of men and women in inheritance law. He claims that he does not belong to any ideological camp, but nevertheless justifies his position on inheritance law with Sharia law. His argument: there would be a difference between equality and justice. Equal shares of inheritance for men and women would not automatically create justice. In Tunisian law, the care of the family is the responsibility of the man. In doing so, Said closes his eyes to the reality of life of broad sections of the population: women study, work, contribute to the family income, and usually perform additional unpaid housework. All the more surprising is the fact that a total of 22 percent of women voters voted for Said in the first round of the presidential elections.

Leftists were part of the backbone of his campaign from the beginning. These included revolution activists in remote regions or underprivileged neighbourhoods in cities who roamed the coffee houses with Kais Said, where he promoted his project. This included ideologues such as Ridha Belhaj Al-Mekki, also known as Ridha "Lenin", who once co-founded the student organization of Watad (Wataj) and after the revolution created the politically relatively insignificant Free Forces of Tunisia (Quwa Tounes Al-Horra). In light of the conservative social ideas of Kais Said, what motivates the Left to support him?

It was the similar assessment of the political transformation process and the Tunisian party landscape that brought together the Free Forces of Tunisia and Kais Said. They rejected the idea of electing a constituent assembly. Instead, they pleaded for a political and economic transformation from the bottom up: from the local level via the commune and the region to the head of state. They were inspired by the experience of the Revolution Defense Committees (majaless himayat al-thawra): self-organized and partially elected committees formed nationwide in 2011.  

For some years now, Kaid Said has been promoting his model of "radical democracy" in a nationwide "explanatory campaign" under the motto "The People Want"[12] (al-cha'b yourid). He proposes forming 265 local councils, one for each mu'tamdyiah (Tunisia's second smallest administrative level). Possible candidates must collect a minimum number of support signatures—half from women and half from men. By majority voting, local councils would then be elected from their ranks. These are then responsible for drawing up development plans for the mu'tamdyiah. From these local councils a representative for the council of the wilaya, the governorate, is drawn for a limited time. Tunisia is divided into 24 wilayats.

The local and regional councils also include representatives of the local administrations and the security organs—albeit without voting rights. Delegates from the regional councils are then delegated to parliament. This makes parliamentary elections superfluous. In view of the general disillusionment with the political process and a growing economic crisis, Said's vision found supporters in both the left and conservative camps, but above all among the youth. Left supporters saw Kais Said's project as a continuation of the revolutionary process, which in their opinion had been confiscated by the parties since 2011. Kais Said, who had repeatedly rejected government positions offered to him and kept his distance from all parties, is therefore considered a credible representative of a political alternative.

However, the political balance of power in parliament is an obstacle to the implementation of his ideas. Said and his movement have not had any lists of their own for the parliamentary elections and it seems that Said cannot hope for the two-thirds majority in parliament required for a bill.

Perspectives for the Left in Tunisia

The Tunisian Left was considerably weakened by the collapse of the Popular Front for the Realization of the Goals of the Revolution. Part of its electorate supported Ettayar, a party with social-democratic elements. However, Ettayar is too weak to have any noticeable influence on the country's official policies. Although Kais Said is socially very conservative, he holds progressive positions in the political and economic spheres, as does his demand for a strong welfare state. Said, however, has no parliamentary power to bring about a change in social policy. However, his election seems to have revived the revolutionary spirit of 2011. In contrast, many questions about the ideology and composition of his movement remain unclear.

It is to be hoped that the members of the Popular Front and the Union démocratique sociale will self-critically rethink their strategic orientations and their political discourse and reconsider their disputes. New alliances are also important in view of the challenges of the historical period: a broad social alliance of the members of the aforementioned parties, civil society actors, the trade union grassroots, and part of the support base of Kais Said could increase the pressure on official politics.

The weakness of the traditional left also offers an opportunity for a radical renewal of the left in Tunisia. In an article published in June 2019, the young sociologist Walid Besbes pointedly spoke of "reclaiming of the left's idea after the collapse of the Popular Front". After the 2011 Revolution, a new generation of left activists, academics, and social movements emerged to defend the achievements of the revolution: Manich Msamah, the solidarity movement with the self-organized oasis of Jemna, the LGBTQ movement, and other movements for the defence of minority rights, the movement of the young unemployed, the movements against the financial laws or against the Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Tunisia (ALECA), and many others. What has been missing is a new left structure that links these struggles. However, this structure must no longer respond only reactively with protests, but must develop realistic alternatives by involving large sections of the population, articulating the everyday concerns and problems of the population and connect the social question with other struggles. At these last elections, populists like Nabil Karoui's party and some other conservative actors were able to claim the social question in the election campaign and win many voters. A strong Left structure could have prevented this and could in future develop into a legitimate representative of the subalterns.

Translated by Mounir Mrad


[1] Following the fall of Ben Ali, a constituent assembly and a transitional president were elected in 2011. The first parliamentary and presidential elections based on the new constitution were held in 2014. In 2018, municipal parliaments were elected for the first time.

[2] After Nidaa Tounes (37 percent), which was founded by former Bourguiba supporters and representatives of the secular establishment, the conservative Islamic Ennahdha (27 percent) and the market liberal Union Patriotique Libre (4 percent), with 3.6 percent of the votes and 15 of 217 parliamentary seats

[3] Based on the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which was founded in 1947 by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar.

[4] The UDS consists of Al-Massar, who emerged from the Tunisian CP; Tunisie en avant, which is close to the union, and three left-liberal splinter groups.

[5] Following the Arab socialism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954–1970).

[6] Former Nidaa members (2014 election winner): Tahya Tounis (party of former prime minister Youssef Chahed): 14 seats, Machrou' Tounes: 4; Nidaa Tounes: 3; some like Sofiane Toubel (former faction leader of Nidaa), are now at Qalb Tounis.

[7] Article 1: Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state; its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its regime is republican.

[8] Al-Qutb al-dimuqrati split from Al-Massar, which in turn is a successor organization to the Tunisian CP.

[9] Each party within the People's Front has one vote in the Council through its Secretary General, regardless of the individual weight of the parties. Independent members of the Popular Front are therefore excluded from the decision-making process.

[10] The deputies of Watad, of the Ligue de gauche ouvrière (LGO) and Independents.

[11] Cf. Hmed C. (2018), "Les déçu-e-s de l’autoritarisme partisan. Engagement et désengagement dans les organisations de la gauche radicale en Tunisie après 2011”, in Amin Allal et Vincent Geisser, Tunisie au présent: une démocratisation au dessus de tout soupçon?, Paris: CNRS Editions, pp. 123–137, p. 126.

[12] "The people want the overthrow of the regime" was one of the main slogans of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011.