Tunisia’s well-organized Islamists have been defeated in parliamentary elections, paying the price for the turbulent years they ruled after the Arab Spring that saw the rise of terrorist groups in this North African nation.
Voters sought security and stability with familiar faces from Tunisia’s more authoritarian past, but the Islamists’ substantial weight in the new parliament will make them a player in any future government.
Results from the official election commission are just beginning to trickle in, with only three Tunisian districts reported by Tuesday morning. But exit polling and statistical sampling of voting station results by observer groups have produced a remarkably uniform picture.
The party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls) led by an 87-year-old veteran politician from the previous regime took around 35 percent of the seats of the parliament, giving it the right to present a prime minister and form a governing coalition. The Islamists trailed with just 25 percent of the seats.
Nida Tunis presented itself as the answer to the moderate Islamists of the Ennahda Party, which had struggled to guide the country through post-revolutionary turmoil after dominating the 2011 elections. Critics charged the Islamists with being soft on terrorists and incompetent managers.
“I promise only one thing and that is to re-establish the state,” Beji Caid Essebsi, the founder of Nida Tunis, said in an interview on national TV late Monday. “All our problems resulted from the lack of a state.”
Essebsi was a foreign minister in the 1980s, under the country’s first post-independent president Habib Bourguiba, and was briefly interim prime minister in 2011, after the revolution. Essebsi evokes the good old days of Tunisia, with a strong economy and a focus on education — while ignoring its authoritarian aspects.
The party effectively tapped into voters’ fear of instability, as food prices put a strain on the middle class and the assassination of left-wing politicians and militant attacks in the mountains struck fear into ordinary Tunisians.
“It’s an expression of the disillusionment of Tunisians and being fed up with the last three years,” said Chawki Gaddes, an analyst at Tunis University. “There was a degraded economic situation, the emergency of jihadi movements, and political assassinations that Tunisia had never known before.”
One fact that may certainly have helped Nida Tunis was a 24-hour standoff between counterterrorism forces and suspect militants in a Tunisian suburb just two days before elections, which left seven people dead, including a policeman.
“It’s order and nationalism,” Michael Ayari, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said of the election result. “It was the desire to restore the authority of the state and the fear of terrorism.”
Tunisians had more than 100 parties to choose from, but the race largely boiled down to voters who still had faith that the Islamists could govern the country once more and those choosing the party strong enough to oppose them.
Nida Tunis is a wide tent, with businessmen, trade unionists and many politicians from the rule of deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and there are questions about how cohesive a party it will be once it gains power.
However, it gave the impression that it could beat Ennahda’s impressive electoral machine, and its campaign urged citizens to make their voices count by voting for Nida Tunis.
With the next highest vote getters polling just around 5 percent of the vote, putting together a governing coalition without the Islamists — as Nida Tunis has repeatedly promised to do — could be quite a feat of political horse trading.
The Islamists may end up having just 10 to 15 seats fewer than Nida Tunis in the 217- member parliament, making them a difficult force to ignore.
For its part, Ennahda reacted to its defeat by celebrating outside its party headquarters late Monday night what it called a “victory for all Tunisians.”
While hundreds waved flags, cheered and set off fireworks, party leaders congratulated the country for holding free and calm elections that they called the envy of the region.
“The whole Arab world wishes they were Tunisian, so enjoy all these freedoms,” said party founder Rashed Ghannouchi to the cheering crowd as it chanted his name. “Take advantage of this democratic freedom and celebrate the place we have reached.”
In their speeches, the party leaders dismissed the loss to Nida Tunis, insisting that it is the welfare of the country that comes first.
In every revolution, the first party in power has to “pay the price,” said Amer Laarayedh, a top party leader. He said Ennahda’s popularity suffered as it dealt with the post-revolutionary turmoil and high expectations, even as it put in place a new political system and constitution.
“If we hadn’t taken that responsibility, there would have been no constitution, no parliament and not even these elections,” he said.