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Islamists Lead Polls Before First Democratic Tunisia Election

Islamists Lead Polls Before Democratic Tunisia Election
Islamist party Ennahdha begin their election campaign on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis. Photographer: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia, the first country to rise up in the so-called Arab Spring, may also become the region’s first new democracy to vote an Islamist party into power.

Ennahdha, an Islamic party legalized only six months ago, is the front-runner in the Oct. 23 vote to choose an assembly to write a new constitution, according to an OpinionWay poll released just before a pre-election polling ban took effect on Oct. 1. The party says it won’t impose its views on what is now the most secular country in the region.

Tunisia’s election has the potential to set an example for post-revolutionary countries such as Egypt and Libya, and for monarchies Morocco and Jordan as they allow more democracy. For Ennahdha, it’s a test of whether Arab Islamic movements can follow Turkey’s ruling AKP party in marrying Islam and democracy while attracting foreign investment.

“A big win for the Islamists could scare some investors away,” said Slim Feriani, London-based chief executive officer of Advance Emerging Capital Ltd., which manages $750 million in frontier and developing-nation stocks. “The best result for markets would be if you don’t get a single party dominating.”

Tunisian stocks have outperformed this year. The benchmark TUNINDEX is down 9.5 percent, compared with 17.4 percent for the MSCI Emu Index of leading European stocks.

Departing President

President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was deposed Jan. 14 in a popular revolt, putting an end to a 23-year reign marked by political repression and corruption.

The assembly Tunisians will create in the country’s first-ever free vote will be charged with writing a constitution, leading to another round of elections in a year. More than 100 political parties and about 1,000 independent slates of candidates are running. The 217 seats will be decided by a proportional system.

The four main non-Islamic parties in this country of 11 million say they are modeled on European Social-Democratic parties. The PDP, or Progressive Democrat Party, for instance, pledges a pro-business stance, better social services and separation of politics from religion.

“After 50 years of being too frightened, there are now too many parties, too many discourses,” said Maya Jribi, a 51-year old lawyer who is deputy head of the party.

Jribi said the Progressive Democrats will try to ally in the assembly with all other centrist parties to outvote Ennahdha. Attempts by another party, the Modernist Democratic Pole, to create a pre-election multiparty coalition failed.

Market Favor

In the market in Tunis’s Medina old city, several merchants said they favor Ennahdha because they see its past opposition to Ben Ali as giving it more distance from the regime.

“It’s not a religious question, it’s that Ennahdha is honest and serious,” said Abdelmajid, a 38-year-old jewelry vendor. After 50 years of dictatorship, most Tunisians decline to give their family names when giving street interviews.

“Jobs and security are the main issues, everything else is way behind,” said another Ennahdha supporter, Amir, 28, as he sat in front of his jewelry stall next door. “I don’t want a religious state and I don’t see the risk.”

A poll by Paris-based OpinionWay carried out Sept. 22-24 showed 25 percent of respondents would vote for Ennahdha, 16 percent for the PDP and 14 percent for Ettakatol, another party with positions similar to the PDP.

The poll, which involved 1,034 respondents with a three percentage-point margin of error, also indicated 44 percent of voters may still change their minds. No polls have been allowed since the official start of the campaign Oct. 1.

Unreliable Polls?

Al-Watad, which has pledged to rewrite Tunisia’s trade accord with the European Union to make foreign companies pay more taxes, and the Modernist Democrats, an alliance of parties close to the views of the Progressive Democrats and Ettakatol, both say the polls aren’t reliable and that they are in the No. 2 slot behind Ennahdha.

“Ennahdha has a retrograde program based on religion,” says Ahmed Brahim, who runs the main party in the Modernist Democratic grouping. “In the media they play soft music to soothe voters and foreigners. When no one is around they push for Islamic law and polygamy.”

Ennahdha leaders say they support religious freedom for all and won’t touch Tunisia’s family law, which in the 1950s abolished polygamy and gave women equal rights with men, including for divorce. Tunisia legalized contraception and abortion in the 1960s, before France.

“We will defend tooth and nail the rights of women when it comes to voting, education, equality and work,” said Ali Laarayedh, the head of the party’s constitution committee.

Turkish Example?

Not everyone says an Ennahdha election would hurt Tunisia’s economy, based on the example of Turkey. The Turkish benchmark ISE National 100 Index has risen sixfold since the AKP’s March 2003 election.

Tunisia’s per-capita income was $4,060 in 2010 and 78 percent of the population was literate, the World Bank says, more than Egypt’s $2,440 per-capita income and 66 percent literacy rate.

“I’ve been working with three European clients looking to buy assets in Tunisia,” said Geoff Porter, founder of North Africa Risk Consulting Inc., a Connecticut-based risk advisory group. “They are well aware of Ennahdha’s strength and don’t seem deterred. I think investors have become more sophisticated. An Ennahdha government might push for changes on matters such as education and social policy, but not on matters that affect investment.”

In the Village

Ennahdha, founded in the 1980s, is benefiting from its organization and from its history of opposition to Ben Ali, said Azzedine Layachi, professor of Middle East affairs at St. John’s University in New York.

“It’s natural that people who were most repressed by the old regime are now at the forefront,” he said.

Ennahdha official Laarayedh, who spent 19 years in jail and had a death sentence commuted in 1987, is sincere, said the Progressive Democrats’ Jribi. At the village level, though, out of sight of cameras, Ennahdha representatives tell women to wear headscarves and advocate Islamic law, she said.

Laarayedh denied his party presents different views depending on the setting. Under Ben Ali, pious Tunisians in beards or headscarves were kept out of universities and many jobs, reducing them to second-class citizens who could only work in textile factories, Laarayedh said.

History and Traditions

“We don’t want a religious state but we want a state that allows Tunisians to live their religion,” said Laarayedh, accusing centrist parties of wanting to maintain the status quo. “We don’t want a state that cuts people off from their history and traditions.”

On the economy, the party says its position is little different from the secular parties. Its views on family values and culture are closer to those of European Christian Democrats, who generally support a greater role for religious morality in setting social policy, he said.

Politically, Ennahdha favors a parliamentary system with a ceremonial head of state, while the PDP and other centrist parties support creating a strong presidency. The party wants to work with other parties on governing Tunisia and writing the constitution, even if it wins a majority, Laarayedh said.

“I don’t see why there should be that much concern about Ennahdha,” said Layachi, the professor. “Tunisians are not likely to go along with revamping their secular lifestyle.”

Wearing Jeans

That secularism is visible on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, named after Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia’s independence struggle against France after World War II and was named president in 1957. Under the plane trees, couples sit in outdoor cafes drinking beer, with women wearing everything from tight jeans to headscarves.

Tunisians will vote for party lists in 33 constituencies, six of them overseas. Only four parties have presented lists in every district, and almost half the lists have no link to a party. Ettakatol is the only centrist party that declares itself willing to work with Ennahdha.

“Ennahdha is not an enemy,” said Khemais Ksila, a 55-year-old former human-rights activist who spent three years in prisons and 10 years exiled in France. He now heads a party list in Tunis. “We don’t agree with its social program but see no interest in excluding it.”

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