Tunisia’s Ex-Ruling Party Banks on Islamists Fear to Stay Afloat

Tunisia’s ex-ruling party may change its name and will remove members accused of corruption in order to run in the nation’s first free elections, betting it will draw people concerned about the Islamists’ return to politics.

“There will be a polarization: modernism against religious extremism,” Mohamed Ghariani, the secretary-general of the Constitutional Democratic Rally, said in interview yesterday in Tunis. “We are a modernist movement open to the West, we have achievements to put forward like liberation from colonialism and the civil code, and we will seek to preserve women’s rights.”

Street protests on Jan. 14 ended the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and opened the door for banned groups such as the Islamist Ennahda movement to take part in political life.

A transitional government is now running the North African state with the aim to organize within six months the first free elections since independence from France in 1956. Tunisia has the most favorable laws for women in the Arab world, banning polygamy and repudiation and making it compulsory for men to go to court to get a divorce.

Ennahda’s leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, dismissed claims that he would restrict democracy, civil liberties and women’s rights. In an interview yesterday, he insisted his group will abide by democratic rules, like the Justice and Development Party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The former ruling party, known locally by its French acronym RCD, will compete against other groups and will accept the result of the vote, said Ghariani, who is overseeing the transitional phase.

‘Negative Aspects’

“For the first time since independence, the RCD is not led by the chief of state,” he said. “We have become a party among other political parties. We are restructuring to get rid of the negative aspects of the past period, like the cult of the personality, and we will remove anybody who is proven to have been involved in corruption or rights abuses.”

The RCD succeeded the Destour, or Constitution Party, that led the fight against French rule to become the ruling group under the nation’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Ben Ali toppled Bourguiba in 1987 and changed the party’s name.

While the RCD has 2 million members, or about one in five of the country’s population, only about 100,000 are “actively” involved in party life, Ghariani said. The RCD plans to adopt a new name that will probably retain the word “Constitution,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Maher Chmaytelli in Tunis at mchmaytelli@bloomberg.net; Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at jlaghmari@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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