Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party has said it will not back any candidate in the upcoming presidential election, in a move that could open the floor for its secular opponents to rule the country.
However, experts say this could be a political maneuver for Ennahda to entrench itself in the political system.
Following initial talks on endorsing a “consensus candidate,” Ennahda’s leadership on Saturday said its members were free to elect whomever they see fit to be the next president.
Tunisian political analyst al-Ajmi al-Qasimi told Al Arabiya News that Ennahda’s announcement could make it difficult for any presidential candidate to win in the first round, given that the party has a support base of up to a million in a country of 11 million people.
“They could have asked their base not to elect anyone,” said Qasimi, “but they chose what’s politically called the ‘grey zone,’ basically endorsing no one and opening the field for their base to vote for whomever they see fit.”
If the vote moves to a second round and the race is tight, Ennahda could then step in to support a candidate and propel him to the presidency.
“Then Ennahda would say the president was elected with its support and will then start laying out its demands,” Qasimi said.
Ennahda had pledged not to field or back a presidential candidate, but following its recent defeat in parliamentary elections, it could renege on its pledge to maintain political influence.
Political analyst Noureddine Mbarki said Ennahda’s announcement was a strategic move to withstand an anti-Islamist tide in the region, especially after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
“Now that it still exists on the political stage, Ennahda is maneuvering,” said Mbarki. “They’re holding on, and don’t want to waste the opportunity to share power.”
Under the new constitution, power resides largely with the prime minister and his parliamentary coalition.
However, foreign affairs and defense-related decisions, as well as the appointment of a prime minister, remain in the hands of the president.
Qasimi said Ennahda “has a serious understanding of the political scene in Tunisia, but this is a risky move which could end up undermining the party’s credibility.”
Ennahda came second in the country’s Oct. 26 legislative elections with 69 of the 217 parliamentary seats, while the winning party Nidaa Tounes got 86 seats.
The close race between the rivals suggests that the country will be ruled by a coalition government, though it is still not clear which parties will participate.
Ennahda has already declared its willingness to work with any party, but for the secular Nidaa Tounes, a political alliance with the Islamists could be self-destructive .
Najmeddine Akkari, political analyst and editor-in-chief of Al-Anwar newspaper, said Nidaa Tounes based its electoral campaign on discrediting the Islamists, so it would not make sense for them to accept Ennahda in a coalition government.
Ennahdha achieved a sweeping victory in the 2011 election, and formed a coalition government with two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol (the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties).
However, mass protests fueled by a poor economy, threats of terrorism, and the assassination of two opposition leaders led to the resignation of the coalition government and its replacement with a non-partisan, technocratic government headed by interim caretaker Prime Minister Mahdi Jomaa.
Akkari said Ennahda’s failure after the revolution is one of the reasons it is not interested in the presidential race.
“Ennahda is the smartest political player out there. Everything is calculated,” he said, adding that the party opted to neither field its own candidate nor endorse any candidate so people would not blame them for any failures of the next president.
Another reason is related to “image-building,” said Akkari. “They came up with this notion of ‘neutrality’ to show foreign observers that they’re not like the rest of the Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood, who hold extremist agendas.
“They wanted to show them that they’re pro civil democracy and are willing to coexist with the secularists.”
Polarization between Islamism and secularism could lead to another political deadlock.
Although it came second, Ennahda could still garner enough power to hinder any legislative bill, Akkari said. “But if they’re going to block each other, we’ll need a new government every three months.”
Tunisia’s presidential election, scheduled on Nov. 23, will officially complete the post-revolution transition to democracy.
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