The Al-Nahda (“Renaissance”) Party, a long-banned Islamist movement that was legalized after the ouster of Tunisia’s autocratic President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, is emerging as the big winner in Sunday’s elections. Although the final results have not yet been announced, Al-Nahda has reportedly won 27 out of the 62 seats, over 40 percent of the seats filled so far, in the 217-member constituent assembly.
The landmark election—the first genuinely free election to be held in Tunisia since it gained independence in 1956—will determine the members of the assembly that will draft a new constitution, appoint an interim government, and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections next year. More than 90 percent of Tunisia’s 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots, an extremely high turnout that reflects strong support for democratic change. More than 100 parties are competing for seats in a proportional representation system.
Tunisian secularists, leftists, and liberals were dismayed by the poor showing of many of their preferred parties. Some gathered in front of the office of Tunisia’s electoral commission to protest alleged voter fraud by Al-Nahda, which did better than expected in the vote. The secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights in Tunisia complained that “the problem of Nahda is that they have a different discourse.… Today they will stick with the republic, but tomorrow—we’ll see.”
Al-Nahda was expected to win the largest share of the votes, but it appears to have exceeded expectations. Unlike many of the newly formed secular political parties, it is well-organized with a strong grassroots presence. It was also well-financed due to access to funds from Islamic charities. There are also rumors of financial support from oil-rich Arab kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.
Just as Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” was a harbinger of other popular uprisings in the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s elections may be a harbinger of Islamist victories in upcoming elections in two other countries influenced by the Arab Spring: Egypt and Libya. The leaders of Egypt’s secular political parties are reportedly already apprehensive about the Tunisian election results, fearful that they will also be sidelined in Egypt by an Islamist victory in Egypt’s November parliamentary elections.
If secular political parties fare so poorly in Tunisia—which had a strong secular tradition, a well-educated population, and a relatively large middle class—then they may attract even fewer votes in Egypt and Libya, which have much stronger Islamist political movements. Despite the fact that the initial leadership of most of the Arab Spring protests were secular pro-democracy liberals, the election results from Tunisia suggest that secular liberals could soon become canaries in the coal mine.