Tunisian democracy threatened by weak opposition

Tunisia's fledgling democracy is threatened by a weak opposition that isn't offering a viable alternative to the well-organized Islamists in power, and discontent is taking the form of angry riots with extremist overtones instead.

The return to a single, overbearing ruling party has grave implications for Tunisia and the countries across the region watching its journey to democracy after it kicked off the Arab Spring.

Tunisia has had a smoother transition than its turbulent neighbors. Voters chose between a bewildering array of parties in Tunisia's first free elections in October in what was described at the time as a sign of democracy's exuberance, with the assumption that later elections would feature fewer, more sober choices.

Halfway between those landmark elections and the next round of voting early next year, the political scene in this North African nation of 10 million remains a fractured sea of small parties that share little in common aside from dissatisfaction with the moderate Islamists who dominated the last election.

Part of the problem is that the established opposition parties have been unable to reach out to the young and often secular Tunisians who were instrumental in taking to the streets and overthrowing longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

These Tunisians, many known for their deep immersion in online social networks, have been almost totally excluded from the political scene, which is dominated by politicians from the older generation.

"In Tunisia, we live in the era of the old, not the young," said Slim Ayedi, 32-year-old blogger, journalist and activist. "When I look at the Constituent Assembly, I see old people, old and incompetent. The deputies who don't have email, can't use the internet and don't speak three languages won't go far."

He pointed out that he's traveled the world, met U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, appeared on international panels with Tunisian ministers and is followed online by thousands, yet has never been contacted by a political party.

Instead, he said, people like him become involved in the burgeoning civil society, but in times of economic crisis, activism pays little and many have become consumed with just making a living.

Some disenfranchised youth haven taken to the streets in riots, loosely linked to a growing movement of Salafis, or ultraconservative Muslims trying to impose strict interpretation of Islam on what was long a largely secular society.

"The opposition's role is important to push the party in power to self-criticism and revise its policies," said Slaheddine Jurchi, a longtime political analyst and rights activist. "There is a problem of political culture, there is an absence of the culture of coalitions and working together and there are problems of egoism and clashes of personalities among the heads of parties."

In last year's elections, the disciplined Islamist Ennahda took 37 percent of the vote and 89 seats in the 217-person assembly, three times more than the next best performer. It then joined in a coalition with two other liberal parties to form an unassailable majority of 138 seats.

The fear is that in this power vacuum, Ennahda will rule unchecked and start repeating the behavior of the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally of Ben Ali, which dominated all aspects of political and economic life before it was disbanded.

Critics say Ennahda is already running roughshod over the opposition, antagonizing the unions, quarreling with civil society and showing little interest in building democratic institutions.

The key to the next election will be the new voters, since more than 40 percent of eligible voters weren't registered in October, as well as the third of the electorate, some 1.3 million voters, that voted for parties that didn't make it into the assembly.

But unless the opposition dramatically ups its game, chances are the Islamist machine will snap these up as well.

Maya Jribi, one of the only women leading a political party in the country, admits that her secular, center-left Progressive Democratic Party made a lot of mistakes in the last election.

Believed to be a frontrunner at the time, the historic opposition party came in a distant fifth place with just 16 seats. The party has now united with several others to form the Jumhouri or Republican Party, with 21 seats total and hopes to join up with more to create a more viable opposition.

"The clear lesson from the Oct. 23 elections is that the democrats must move together, united towards elections. What that formula is, however, is not yet clear," she said.

The party will also try to deepen its roots in the Tunisian countryside with more grassroots activists and "develop a discourse that is much simpler than before," Jribi added.

Political scientist Ghazi Gheriari of Tunis University noted that one alliance of leftist parties, the Democratic Political Axis, only won seats in the capital and among the expatriate community in France.

"The opposition has little penetration into the Tunisian countryside," he said. "The results of this election showed two Tunisias, a Tunisia in tune with the opposition where it did respectably and the countryside where this opposition is not credible and has no voice."

In the past two weeks, a new political party known as Nida Tunis or Tunisia's Call, has appeared, led by Caid Beiji Essebsi, who at 85 years-old embodies the phrase "veteran politician" with years of service under Tunisia's first post-independence president Habib Bourguiba.

He was the country's interim prime minister from March 2011 until the elections and has said that his new party will reunite the opposition and restore balance to the nation's politics.

"We called on the other parties to create the conditions allowing the alternation of power but they didn't do enough . so we have created a movement open to all political forces in the country," he told The Associated Press.

Essebsi has also opened the door to former members of the ruling party and at a rally in March, thousands came to pay him homage, including many figures from Ben Ali's time — something that has left him open to accusations he wants to revive the old regime.

Despite his advanced age and that of many of his supporters, Essebsi insists his will be a party of youth and will be open to the activists who oppose the regime but don't have a political party of their own. How he integrates ex-regime figures will be key to any future he has with the rest of the opposition.

With the year-long mandate for the elected assembly running out in October, Essebsi said the only future for the country is a consensus government run by a cabinet of technocrats.

"(Consensus) is a fairly difficult idea for the people here to accept," he said. "They have difficulty understanding what I say, but I am sure this is the only solution."

How he integrates ex-regime figures will be key to any future he has with the rest of the opposition, and already Jribi has expressed reservations about uniting with his party.

Essebsi's party may only increase the competition among Ennahda's opposition. "Its immediate result will be to weaken the other parties on the center left because they are all going after the same electorate," cautioned analyst Gheriari.