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By Khadija Mohsen-Finan (Université de Paris VIII) and Malika Zeghal (Harvard University)

On October 23, Tunisians went to the ballot to elect a 217 member constituent assembly. After the uprisings of December 2010-January 2011, which took place in the streets and squares of Tunisia, this is a second revolution that translates the first revolution in electoral terms. In a remarkably well organized electoral process, based on a well designed electoral law that ensures transparence and neutrality, Tunisians have freely expressed their choices through the ballot box. Compared to the elections that took place under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, where electors could only be apathetic in a context where they were constrained in various ways to vote for the regime and the results were rigged, this is indeed a turning point. The stakes are important and multilayered, and their implications will take time to emerge, notably through future political alliances. However, for the moment, we can offer a few points for analysis.

The Constituent Assembly will draft the constitution of the second republic and will define the operations of the institutions.  The members will elect a president. According to the new electoral law, the prime minister will come from the winning political party and will form his government. The assembly will also function as a legislative assembly and will have one year to draft the constitution. This is a foundational moment that is not without dangers, especially instability and the inability to finish the constitutional task. The proportional representation has ensured representativeness and will also force political parties to enter into coalitions. Therefore, no political formation can claim an overwhelming number of seats: in this sense there will be no major winner.

The massive rate of participation, more than 90% of the registered voters, was unexpected. The massive character of the electoral moment made it impossible for the ISIE to announce the results today, Monday October 24. The results will be probably announced Tuesday October 25, only two days after the election. Only then will we know the exact number of seats won by each list (whether representing a party or independent), as well the regional differences.

But for now, it seems that three political parties are emerging in the new political landscape.  The current leader in the polls is al-Nahdha, headed by Rashed al-Ghannouchi, which seems to have won, unsurprisingly, at least 40% of the seats, while a month ago the polls gave it a score of 20 to 30%.  Al-Nahdha seems to be followed by two other parties, Ettakatol (the Rally), headed by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and probably the Congress for the Republic headed by Moncef Marzouki.

These three parties have built their structures and ideas on a position of dissent against the previous regime. Two of these parties heads, Ghannouchi and Marzouki have been living in exile in Europe, while Ben Jaafar’s party was legalized in 1994, but never accepted any compromise. The emergence of these three parties as the strongest illustrates the Tunisians desire to break as much as possible with the past. The personalities of these three characters have also to be taken into account: they have showed pragmatism, proximity to the voters, and openness to future alliances. On the contrary, other parties like the Progressive Democratic Party (Ahmed Najib Chabbi, who recognized today his party’s defeat) and the Qutb (Ahmed Brahim) have showed less disposition to form alliances with other formations.

Al-Nahdha, the main Islamist movement, has transformed into a legalized party since March. Its program is moderate and committed to the principles of democracy. It claims that they will not put into question the gains of Bourguiba’s regime regarding women’s right and education. They have transformed their old message about the Islamic state into a compromise on  general values relating to the Arab and Islamic identity of Tunisian society. This Arab and Islamic identity is also a central part of Ettakatol’s program and of the Congress for the Republic, who have not based their electoral campaign on the demonization of Al-Nahdha, contrary to others such as the Progressive Democratic Party. They seem to have put away the specter of the cleavage between Islamists and secularists. Therefore, the success of these three parties is the success of “the center” in the Tunisian political spectrum. This center cannot be defined as a go between “left” and “right.”  Rather, it reunites the conservative values of tradition and religion with a program for social justice and development. This is, perhaps, the new political identity in which Tunisians recognize themselves.