Tunisian Election Results Guide: The Fate of a Revolution

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Running data and commentary on the results of Tunisia's first election, held on Sunday

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Supporters of the Islamist al-Nahda party celebrate outside their headquarters in Tunis / Reuters

Update, Friday 10:58 a.m. EST: Final results, for all of the 217 seats. This will be the composition of Tunisia's Constituent Assembly, which will draft the constitution:

• 41 percent (90 seats) have gone to al-Nahda, the Islamist party
• 34 percent (73 seats) to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)
• 9 percent (19 seats) to the bizarre Popular Petition (see below)
• 4 percent (9 seats) to the parties aligned with Ben Ali's regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara)

Three big pieces of news. First is that Popular Petition (an unusual party, led by a wealthy TV station owner, which I briefly profile at the bottom of this page) had even more votes cancelled by the election authorities. They've gone from 28 seats to 19 over alleged campaign finance violations. (Al-Nahda also lost some seats under similar charges.) I doubt many people will be crying tears for this party, but it's bad news for Tunisia's nascent democracy, which has otherwise functioned wonderfully. A bunch of Tunisian citizens just had their votes cancelled by an unelected government body, in a closed-door meeting, with no due process. Tunisians have shown incredible faith in the democratic process so far, and that faith is essential for any democracy to function. But this small failure could erode that faith. If it's followed by more roadbumps, people might decide this system isn't for them.

It's unsurprising, then, that a number of people in Sidi Bouzid, where many of the votes were cancelled, protested. This poor city was the first to rise up in protest in the Arab world and suffered for it mightily. There's a sad, bitter irony that people in this town would be disenfranchised during the first election of a world-changing movement they began. That they took the streets and tried to burn some government buildings is understandable but a bad sign for the prospect of Tunisia growing democratic roots. Fortunately, the protests have already subsided peacefully.

The third bit of news is, of course, the results themselves. I'll add more analysis later so please check back, but for now the headline is the incredible success of liberal parties. One third of the vote to the leading liberal parties is good -- the strength of liberals will be even higher once those core groups are joined by the many smaller parties that won seats in the assembly. They will have to join with al-Nahda, there's no way around that. But it looks like Tunisia's identity, long-fractured between religion and liberalism, will finally come together. It's a great sign for this country's future and for the Arab Spring they sparked.

Update, Thursday 5:18 p.m. EST: This is bad: the election board has cancelled some of al-Nahda's votes. About six hours ago, they cancelled six seats that had been assigned to an independent party called Popular Petition, a move they just now explained as a response to campaign finance violations. They're now also announcing that they're cancelling some votes due to al-Nahda, an Islamist party and Tunisia's most popular party by far.

"I think there's good chance of some violence in interior towns in protest of decision," Daphne McCurdy (in Tunisia on behalf of the Project on Middle East Democracy) warned on Twitter. Cancelling peoples' votes is a big deal at any place or time. But the Tunisian election authorities have cancelled peoples' votes in the country's first-ever election -- a time when people are typically uncertain about democracy in general. This is not going to instill great popular faith in the democratic experiment. Nor is it going to make the Tunisians whose votes were cancelled feel that they are being fully represented.

Announcing that these votes would be cancelled in the middle of the vote tally was a bad move. It will be up to the Tunisian interim government to give people reason to have faith in their new democracy.

Update, Thursday 4:52 p.m. EST: Updated results, for 192 of the 217 seats. Of those:

• 41 percent (78 seats) have gone to al-Nahda, the Islamist party
• 31 percent (59 seats) to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)
• 13 percent (25 seats) to the bizarre Popular Petition (see below)
• 5 percent (9 seats) to the parties aligned with Ben Ali's regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara)

Six hours after pulling four seats from Popular Petition without explanation (see below), the Tunisian election authority has finally explained what happened. According to Daphne McCurdy, Popular Petition was disqualified in several districts for campaign finance violations.

That Popular Petition would be accused of campaign finance rule-breaking is not shocking. The party founder and chief, Mohamed Hechim Hamdi, is a wealthy businessman who has used his money aggressively in the campaign. He's also made some outrageous claims on the campaign trail -- for example, free health care for all elderly. (Tunisia can't afford that.) He doesn't seem like the kind of businessman-turned-politician who would consider himself above skirting campaign finance rules.

But what is surprising is that the Tunisian election authorities would invalidate the results in the middle of tallying votes -- and would wait six hours after retracting the seats to explain why. This vote has gone remarkably smoothly so far, but this raises questions about how ready the Tunisian election authorities really are. It also raises the possibility that Popular Petition will contest not just the odd decision but the competency of the election authorities themselves.

Update, Thursday 10:20 a.m. EST: Updated results, for 186 of the 217 seats. Of those:

• 41 percent (76 seats) have gone to al-Nahda, the Islamist party
• 31 percent (57 seats) to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)
• 13 percent (24 seats) to the bizarre Popular Petition (see below)
• 5 percent (9 seats) to the parties aligned with Ben Ali's regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara)

Hey, did Popular Petition just lose four seats? Yes it did -- in the past two hours, the number of seats allocated to this party appears to have been revised down from 28 to 24. It's not clear why this has happened -- unfortunately, I haven't been keeping a record of the district totals as they've been changing, so I don't know where the sums were changed. It's possible that this was just a clerical or computing error in how the totals were posted online. But it's certainly suspicious that Tunisian election authorities would appear to have removed seats after they'd added them.

As a disclaimer, I've been keeping these tallies by hand, so it's possible that the computing error was my own. But I've double-checked my notes and I recorded 28 seats for Popular Petition two hours ago.

Update, Thursday 8:38 a.m. EST: Updated results, for 167 of the 217 seats. Of those:

• 41 percent (68 seats) have gone to al-Nahda, the Islamist party
• 29 percent (49 seats) to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)
• 17 percent (28 seats) to the bizarre Popular Petition (see below)
• 5 percent (9 seats) to the parties aligned with Ben Ali's regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara)

Perhaps the biggest story so far is the abject failure of parties aligned with old regime. The two parties most closely associated with former President Ben Ali and his government, Afek Tounes and al-Mubadara, have fared miserably, garnering a tiny majority of the vote. Even the liberal party PDP, which many analysts expected to do very well, has done unexpectedly poorly -- probably in large part due to accusations that some of the PDP's candidates were members of the old regime. These accusations likely have some merit to them, but even if they didn't this shows just how much Tunisians hate the old system and how hard it will be for the old-timers to come back.

That might not sound surprising, but it is -- in Egypt, for example, Hosni Mubarak's old party retains a real (if small) support base and loyal politicians who will likely remain entrenched in local parties and institutions for years.

That said, my data above might underestimate the number of old regime officials who are making it into the elected assembly. Over a dozen smaller parties -- some of them with a single candidate -- have already won seats on the assembly. A number of those are probably old regime officials trying to fly under the radar, though it's hard to say how many.

Update, Wednesday 4:04 p.m.: Updated results, for 159 of the 217 seats. Results are coming in awfully slowly. Of those:

• 41 percent (65 seats) have gone to al-Nahda, the Islamist party
• 28 percent (45 seats) to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)
• 14 percent (22 seats) to the bizarre Popular Petition (see below)
• 6 percent (9 seats) to the parties aligned with Ben Ali's regime (Afek Tounes, Mubadara)

Al-Nahda has named their nominee for the presidency of the Constituent Assembly: Souad Abdulrahim, a woman -- and one who does not wear a veil, according to Daphne McCurdy with the Project on Middle East Democracy. It's not clear how much power the assembly president would really hold -- the position, like the assembly itself, is only meant to be temporary -- but al-Nahda is clearly trying to appeal to Tunisia's liberals, secular, and of course its women, all three of whom are already emerging from this election as powerful groups here.

Update, Wednesday 10:45 a.m.: Women will come out under-represented, but not compared to the U.S. In setting up their new political party system, Tunisians adopted an unusual but promising requirement. Each party provides a ranked list of candidates (if a party wins three seats, for example, its top three candidates will take those seats), and the list must alternate between men and women. The idea was to create gender party in the new assembly. But most parties start their candidate lists with a man, putting a woman in the second slot (how's that for symbolism). So, parties that win only one seat will almost certainly give that seat to a man. Right now, there are 14 parties that have only one seat, and that list is likely to grow as results keep coming in.

If we assume that every party begins its list with a male candidate and alternates gender from there (a reasonable assumption, sadly), that would mean that the results so far have yielded 44 percent women and 56 percent men. It's not parity, but it's still better than, for example, the U.S., where women constitute 17 percent of the legislature. So, Tunisia just this year adopted the democratic model of government we've been using for two centuries, and they're already three times closer to proportional representation by gender.

Update, Wednesday 10:34 a.m.: The election's biggest loser. Why is the liberal Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which many observers expected to come in second, instead floundering at fifth, with 4 percent of the returns so far? The PDP had positioned themselves as the anti-Islamists, secular and liberal and free market. CFR's Isobel Coleman thinks the party suffered for their perceived willingness, during the protests, to work with Ben Ali's regime instead of opposing it. Still, it would probably be wrong to conclude that PDP's failure is a failure of liberal secularism in Tunisia -- other such parties have fared well.

Update, Wednesday 9:52 a.m.: Tunisia faces two big questions in this election: religion and the economy. The two issues are useful for understanding the parties and what their successes or failures say about Tunisian desires and the country's future.

The first issue, religion, has gotten plenty of coverage, especially in the West. Ben Ali's regime has long oppressed religion and religious institutions as a threat to his power, at times with the acquiescence of the West. Now that religious political parties are free to run on a platform of Islam in the state, that will likely change. With al-Nahda's strong anti-Ben Ali record and its ability to promote Islamism in a way that appeals to Tunisia's liberal mindset, the party will do well. But the fact that it's attracted less than half the vote suggests that Tunisia is not exactly on its way to becoming a caliphate. If secular parties hold a majority, however slight, you can expect Tunisia to retain its secular character, even if the constitution includes some nods to Islam.

The thing to remember is that we in the West often associate "religious freedom" with a freedom from religion. But, in the Middle East, that phrase is typically about a freedom to practice religion. So an Islamist party can be as much about pushing out repressive, forced secularism as it is about promoting one religion.

The second issue, the economy, is about whether Tunisia will retain the market-friendly policies of the Ben Ali era or revert to the socialism it practiced under Ben Ali's predecessor. Social programs are obviously popular with voters in any country, and Tunisia's economy is hurting, so many voters will be looking for greater protection from the state. Still, Tunisia's economy grew rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s under free market reforms. So far, the leading liberal parties are split on the economy. But the two socialist-leaning liberal parties (CPR and Ettakatol) are outperforming the two market-leaning liberal parties (PDP, PDM) by two-to-one. Still, a handful of small parties that are more market-oriented (Afek Tounes, Al Moubadara) are doing OK despite some suggestions that they have ties to the old regime.

Update, Wednesday 9:23 a.m.: So far, results are in for 136 of the 217 seats. Of those:

• 40 percent (56 seats) have gone to al-Nahda, the Islamist party
• 30 percent (41 seats) to the big liberal parties (CPR, Ettakatol, PDP, Ettajdid)
• 13 percent (18 seats) to Popular Petition, the second most popular party so far

The thing to remember is that it's not enough for a party to have the most votes. Al-Nahda can't do anything on its own with 40 percent, or even 49 percent, of seats. It needs to be able to form a majority coalition, and the larger the coalition it forms, the greater power that majority will have in shaping the constitution. So while it's technically possible that al-Nahda could be excluded from that ruling coalition, with a near-majority like this, it would be very unlikely to happen.

Tunisia has almost certainly elected the Islamist party into its leadership, but the question will be who joins them. With the liberal parties doing so well, al-Nahda will have to drive to the left in order to attract them. Fortunately, al-Nahda and the liberals share some real common ground, especially on social welfare programs and civil rights.

But the wild card here is Popular Petition, run by a bizarre but wealthy businessman who has pandered to Islamists and secularists alike, promising impossible-to-afford handout programs. It's not clear what the party or its leader actually believe in.

•       •       •       •       •

Ten months after Tunisians in the town of Sidi Bouzid sparked the protests that sparked the revolutions that have already transformed the Arab world, the country is voting in its first election and the first real Arab democracy. On Sunday, Tunisians voted on representatives for the 217-seat National Constituent Assembly. That assembly will then draft the country's constitution, including provisions for a parliament, presidency, the nature of religion in the state, civil rights, and a near endless list of crucial issues.

Tunisians fielded an incredible 110 political parties for this election, and news accounts suggest that turnout was high. How those parties shake out will say much about the course of not just Tunisia's revolution but about the Arab Spring as a whole. This page will track and provide commentary on the results as they come out.

Below, a primer on the major parties:

Al-Nahda: Arabic for "the renaissance," the moderate Islamist al-Nahda is one of Tunisia's oldest parties, and the one that suffered the worst under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Party leader Rached Ghannouchi spent much of his life in exile and returned earlier this year. Because of its long history, its appeal to religion, and its record as a fervent opponent of Ben Ali, al-Nahda is popular in Tunisia and expected to do well. Though the party is certainly Islamist, reflecting Tunisia's liberal character it is very moderate and has pledged not to repeal Ben Ali's liberal social laws. I wrote in July that al-Nahda's success could heal the country's fractured identity.

Congress for the Republic (CPR): Moderately liberal, CPR was founded by a human rights activist. CPR emphasises civil rights and personal freedoms. It touts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and refuses corporate donations, putting it (at least on these positions) to the left of some European liberal parties. CPR has cooperated in the past with al-Nahda.

Ettakatol: Also known as the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties, this is a party in the mold of many European leftist parties: liberal, secular, with a strong emphasis on social programs and helping the lower and middle classes. Its leadership includes a number of intellectuals and medical doctors, a prestigious job here.

Progressive Democratic Party (PDP): This centrist liberal party might be the one that most closely resembles the U.S. Democratic Party. Avowedly secular but more market-oriented than socialist (though not exactly libertarian), the PDP has positioned itself as the polar opposite of al-Nahda -- which it has attacked in the campaign.

Ettajdid / Modernist Democratic Pole: Yet another secular liberal socialist party, Ettajid has a long history in Tunisia. But its reputation has been hurt by years of flirtation with communism. Though it gave that up in 1993 for socialism, some voters still see the connection. Still, it is buoyed by its history of opposition to Ben Ali.

Afek Tounes: This economist-founded party is the most closely tied to Tunisia's successful business community. It shares some positions with the PDP as a secular and free market party. Its policies also align it somewhat with the old regime of President Ben Ali, who was aggressively secular and pro-business, making some Tunisians of Afek Tounes.

Al Mubadara: Headed by Ben Ali's one-time foreign minister and closely aligned with the old regime, the fact that Mubadara has any supporters at all is a reminder that every despot has his support base. Likely policies include market liberalism, secularism, and free tear gas for everyone.

Popular Petition: Formed in March in what appears to be a vanity bid by wealthy Tunisian businessman Mohamed Hechim Hamdi, Popular Petition's platform appears to be free handouts for everyone and everything. It's not clear how the party could deliver on such promises as free health care for the elderly, and analysts are skeptical of the party and its leader. But Hamdi -- a sort of Tunisian Ross Perot -- owns a TV station, which he has been openly using as a campaign platform. He has aggressively pursued both al-Nahda supporters as well as supporters of Ben Ali's old regime -- pandering to the two groups with platforms that appear mutually exclusive.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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