Mohamed Sahbi Khalfaoui: The 2019 Elections Were a “Revolution of the Periphery Against the Center”
Though the opinion polls had warned of the results of the 2019 legislative and presidential elections months earlier, they constituted a political earthquake that created a new landscape open to numerous possibilities. At the end of January 2020, The Legal Agenda met with political sociology lecturer at the University of Jendouba, political science expert, and Tunisian Observatory for Democratic Transition (Marsad) member Mohamed Sahbi Khalfaoui to hear his analysis of the new landscape produced by the elections and the faltering process of forming a government.
The Legal Agenda (LA): How would you describe the new parliamentary landscape?
Mohamed Sahbi Khalfaoui: Primarily, it is a splintered, fragmented parliament with weak parties. There is no large bloc that can construct a broad majority capable of ruling. The size of the largest bloc (the Ennahda Movement) is no more than 54 MPs (as opposed to its 89 seats in 2011 and Nidaa Tounes’ 86 seats in 2014).
The landscape is also distinguished by the presence of two significant blocs that present themselves, each in its own way, as anti-establishment, namely the Free Destourian bloc (17 MPs) and the Dignity Coalition bloc (21 MPs), as well as the prominence of the Democratic Bloc. This bloc combines the Democratic Current, the People's Movement, and some independents to occupy the second position with 41 MPs, and it could provide some stability to the landscape.
It is also a landscape from which the radical left is absent, as are clear socioeconomic visions. However, this parliament is the most representative as its composition is the one that most resembles the Tunisian people in relation to the landscapes of the 2011 and 2014 elections, except for the virtual absence of the far left.
LA: Do you think that this parliament is more right-wing that its two predecessors?
Khalfaoui: Indeed, the whole landscape has shifted a step to the right. The far left has vanished, and the center or center-left (the Democratic Bloc) now represents the left. And those who were classified as the “far right”, namely the Ennahda Movement, find themselves in the center-right with two political forces to their right, namely the Dignity Coalition and the Errahma Party. Also new is that the most anti-Political Islam bloc in Parliament (the Free Destourian bloc) is socially conservative. Hence, this Parliament is the most right-wing, at least socially. As for socioeconomically, the absence of platforms among the various parties means that economic policy, which is determined in particular via the finance law, will be prepared by the administration in the Ministry of Finance, not the parties.
LA: Who, in your opinion, are the biggest victors in this landscape?
Khalfaoui: The first victor in the legislative elections is the Ennahda Movement. While it lost half the votes it obtained in the last legislative elections, it is more or less the only survivor from the 2014 landscape produced by the ballot boxes. The Ennahda Movement remains at the heart of the political process with a large capacity to maneuver and negotiate. With no more than one quarter of parliament’s seats, it took the parliament speaker position for its president Rached Ghannouchi, and it is virtually impossible to form a government without its consent. The one thing that has changed between the initial period involving the formation of Habib Jemli’s government and the formation of the current government is that it has lost the political initiative as it has transformed from the party leading the government coalition into a party participating, with other actors, in this government.
There are political forces that could be considered among the victors. Their representation was nonexistent (the Free Destourian Party and the Dignity Coalition) or weak (the Democratic Current and the People’s Movement), and they now have significant blocs capable of exerting influence. We also shouldn’t forget the Heart of Tunisia Party, which was established months before the elections and imposed itself as the second political force in the country.
However, in my opinion, Parliament is governed by balances of weakness, not balances of power. Hence, the most important winner in the landscape as a whole remains President Kais Saied as he still maintains his very strong popularity opposite weak political parties unable to impose their leaders as widely popular figures. The current parliamentary landscape will give parliamentary activity and government activity a bad image, especially with the issues that have tarnished the negotiations to form a government. Although what’s happening is necessary and practiced in all parliamentary democracies, it projects the image of efforts to divvy up the cake of government, which could strengthen the image of the president. There seems to be a mood among the people that sees no benefit in Parliament and the party system and expects much from the president.
LA: What’s your analysis of the results of the presidential elections?
Khalfaoui: The second round of presidential elections witnessed an unprecedented landslide for Kais Saied, with more than 72% of the votes and a large turnout. I think the vote for Kais Saied in the second round was largely a vote against Nabil Karoui. It was akin to a referendum on corruption. However, we also shouldn’t downplay the image of the honest law professor with a clean record versus a political class that has lost much of its credibility.
However, the results of the presidential elections cannot be understood by referring only to the results of the second round. The first round witnessed much fragmentation. Even Kais Saied obtained no more than 600,000 votes, i.e. 18%, barely more than half the votes that Moncef Marzouki obtained when he came second in the first round of the 2014 presidential elections. There are various different hopes among Tunisian voters, and they were reflected in numerous choices and close results in the first round.
What distinguished the 2019 elections is that virtually all the candidates and parties abandoned the “big tent” strategy that attempts to attract all voters in favor of strategies that focus on a specific discourse, such as combating corruption and eliminating poverty, and are directed at a specific class of voters.
LA: Will the political system’s practice change after these elections?
Khalfaoui: The Tunisian political system is distinguished in that it is dynamic (variable architecture). Whoever forms the parliamentary majority will rule, whatever his position may be. In 2014, President Beji Caid Essebsi was the leader of the parliamentary majority, so he ruled, and the system was closer to a presidential system. However, in the middle of Parliament’s term, the landscape inverted such that the leader of the parliamentary majority became Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, so the system became predominantly parliamentary.
Currently, the president is not represented in Parliament. Hence, theoretically, he will not directly influence the government. However, the Constitution gives him significant powers to exert influence by proposing bills, presiding over ministerial councils, and sending laws back to Parliament to be approved by a three-fifths majority, which will be very difficult for the coming parliamentary majority given the parliamentary landscape’s fragmentation.
The government alliance will combine at least three blocs, probably more. It does not seem that the prime minister-designate will actually be able to lead the government coalition. The new government alliance remains dependent on whether the Ennahda Movement wants or doesn’t want to participate in a government that doesn’t include the Heart of Tunisia Party. The Ennahda Movement doesn’t want to share government with parties that can impose orientations it considers childish and far removed from real practice and its constraints. The Ennahda Movement also doesn’t want to leave Heart of Tunisia in the opposition, which would cause convergence between it and the movement’s nemesis, the Free Destourian Party and its leader Abir Moussi. Hence, it faces three possibilities: a government in which the parties of the so-called “revolutionary line”, or rather a government of the parties that called for people to vote for President Kais Saied in the second round of the presidential elections; a national unity government in which more or less everyone participates, meaning it will be nothing but a government of its prime minister, Elyes Fakhfakh; or the bitterest option, namely going to premature legislative elections.
Hence, we will face a political system with a fragile, fragmented, and weak parliamentary and governmental system and a strong president – not necessarily politically or constitutionally but in terms of popularity, as demonstrated not only by the election results but also the new opinion polls on confidence in political figures. Hence, the political system’s practice will largely depend on the choices and tactics of President Kais Saied.
Whatever the case, there is no sense, in my opinion, in amending the Constitution to revise the political system. Even the voices that were calling for that and the adoption of a presidential system have faded now that it has become clear to them that the presidential elections could bring someone like Kais Saied to Carthage Palace. Part of the solution to the parliamentary landscape’s fragmentation could lie in revising the voting system, but not toward creating “majorities” of one political persuasion. Do we want a parliament that represents the people or a stable parliament? This is the question that the political elites must ask. The choice of voting system depends on the answer to such questions.
LA: What about the possibility of dissolving parliament? Do you think it exists?
Khalfaoui: Dissolving parliament might be a possibility, but not in the short term. None of the political actors are currently prepared to bet on repeat elections. Hence, the numerical majority needed for the government to obtain confidence will be found. Repeat elections might not even be in the interest of the Democratic Current, which enjoys the highest level of confidence according to the opinion polls, because Kais Saied competes with it over the same electoral base.
The Ennahda Movement is playing this card to impose its negotiating conditions within the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, who, in turn, is using the same card to form a government that saves Parliament from the possibility of repeat elections. I don’t believe that the current situation of the Tunisian state and its administration and government allows going to new elections, which would prevent the new government from forming before September.
However, we might head toward a government collapse after a year or a year and a half, and at that point, repeat elections may be a possibility. What’s certain is that dissolving Parliament and repeating the legislative elections will allow the president – if he wants – to support lists that could sweep the next parliamentary landscape with no less than 90 seats at the expense of numerous formations present in the current landscape. The problem, for most of the parties, is Kais Saied’s popularity.
LA: Were the 2019 elections a consolidation of democracy or a threat to it?
Khalfaoui: Is the Tunisian democracy under threat? Yes, especially in the absence of democratic actors – in the full sense of the term – with firm and clear democratic convictions. However, elections in and of themselves cannot be a threat to democracy. What remains to be said is that there are lessons that must be drawn from them. Among the conclusions is that we have departed from the centrality of the coast and the capital. We have a president from Nabeul Governorate, his competitor in the second round was from Bizerte, the parliament speaker is from Gabes, and the first prime minister-designate was from Kairouan while the second is from Sfax. In other words, we have left behind the dichotomy of the coast and capital as traditional bastions for producing elites.
Although we do not yet have sociological data for Tunisians’ voting, it seems to me, in a preliminary reading, a revolution of the periphery or margin against the center, or a revolution of marginalized elites over the old elites present in government and even opposition.
It appears that the act of voting has become more conscious. This does not mean that emotion is entirely absent, nor necessarily that voters’ choices are correct. However, the idea of punishing the parties that were in government was very present this time. We departed from the voting logic in 2011 and 2014 and entered the normal logic of democracy, namely that voters punish whoever they deem to have failed in government.
Keywords: Tunisia, Elections, Political system, Parliament