On Nahda's victory in Tunisia

I am about to leave Tunisia — I'm writing this from the airport — and wanted to write a few thoughts down before I left, as I promised in my post two days ago. It's still not clear what the final results are, as the Election Commission is taking a very long time to count the votes and make sure there are no errors. I don't think any election has been as meticulously scrutinized, ever! But it's clear that Nahda has won a plurality of seats in the constituent assembly — right now they are projected as having won at least 32% of seats, far less than the 47% I was hearing on Monday. I suspect the final result will show them in the low 40s. Even at 32%, they still obtained twice the number of seats as the second party, the CPR.

Now, there are all sorts of allegations floating about. Some say Nahda supporters were told to vote CPR in part, and some hardline secularists view CPR as  a Trojan horse for Nahda. This is a bit much, as CPR also benefited from a strong campaign (or so I've been told) and the personality of longtime dissident Moncef Marzouki.

The same allegations are made of the big surprise of this election, the rise of the new party Aridha Chaabia, headed by exiled businessman Hachmi Hamdi. Hamdi owns the London-based TV station al-Mustaqila (which got into a little trouble with Ben Ali but also at times offered him praise) and did particularly well in the south, notably Sidi Bouzid, where he promised all sorts of outlandish things (land plots, money to the unemployed, etc.) Some have also alleged that Nahda backed Aridha Chaabia, and Hamdi has some Islamist views. It's not clear where his money comes from, but one suspects Saudi Arabia (he hosts Wahabi sheikhs on his station.) His overall style is Islamo-populist, a pretty common political vein in the Arab world.

So in the view of some conspiracy-minded secularists, the top three parties have tied to the Islamist movement. This seems a bit much for me to swallow, reflects the worry of some in the posh northern suburb of Tunis and no doubt elsewhere. (Remember, none of these parties have run on a platform that promised explicitly Islamist policies).

My own view is that while Aridha's success needs to be explained more thoroughly (and there is talk that there might be violations of campaign financing for the party, which could lead to the cancellation of its victories), Nahda's success is pretty straight-forward. Simply put, the party was widely seen as the best-organized, the clearest in its convictions, and the most distant from Ben Ali. There also seems to be a buy-in to the idea that these religiously minded people will bring a back-to-basics, honest approach to governance that is much-needed after the highway robbery of the Ben Ali regime. I did not get the feeling that Nahda voters went with the party overwhelmingly because they wanted specific religious policies implemented.

It'll be really interesting to break down the final results when they come out, as because of the electoral system (largest remainder list-based) a huge chunk of votes for small parties and independent lists will not count towards seats. Perhaps 20-30% of the votes went to these lists that did not obtain a seat. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how the popular vote breaks down: Nahda probably got a larger percentage of the popular vote than the percentage of seats it obtained, for instance. 

It's been frustrating having to wait for detailed breakdowns — notably for journalists for wires and dailies for whom yesterday was practically a wasted day, since the story did not really progress. But for wonks, looking at that final data will be really interesting. Take a look at preliminary results here.