Tunisia: Widespread scepticism over Parliamentary elections

Pro-capitalist parties teaming up for more of the same – urgent need to rebuild a political voice for the working class and youth

In just a few days, on Sunday 26 October, Tunisian people will vote in parliamentary elections. The MPs elected to the Assembly will have a mandate of five years.

However, many observers already anticipate a record rate of abstention, which was already at 50.4% in the last elections in October 2011. Another important element is the number of undecided voters, which varies between 40% and 60%, according to the polls.

The large number of undecided voters and the expected high rate of abstention are sources of concern for the political establishment and the ruling class. Even more so that the Ministry of Religious Affairs has recently issued a fatwa stating that participation in the elections is a religious obligation!

Primarily, these factors illustrate the wide distrust of large sections of the Tunisian people towards elections which few expect will result in any significant improvement in their living conditions.

On the one hand, we are witnessing the rise of rich businessmen involving themselves directly in politics – especially during this election campaign. They have nothing good to offer the majority of Tunisians. Their influence is being advanced through their great wealth and their cronyism practices. This is clearly shown in the rising campaign of the Union Patriotique Libre (UPL), led by billionaire Slim Riahi, President of the Club Africain football team, and among the richest men in Tunisia.

Many vote-buying practices have been reported from different quarters. But where the influence of the capitalists’ money is most evident is in the media. Many TV, radio and newspapers are owned by big businessmen who are running for elections under different banners and who are, therefore, judge, jury and executioner at the same time, setting the tone of the debate in a way that only assists the interests of their class.

Several former ministers and officials of the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali are also present, running for high positions on some lists, especially those of the Nidaa Tounes party, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, in which are nestled many of the ‘old guard’, nostalgic for the pre-’Arab Spring’ rule.

This is without mentioning the fact that the dominant themes being imposed in these elections are completely ignoring the socio-economic issues. Yet a recent survey indicated widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, with 88% of respondents stating that the economy is in a ‘bad’ state, and 56% describing it as ‘very bad’. The situation of workers and the poor masses has only deteriorated further in the recent period, including under the late so-called ‘technocrat’ government of Mehdi Jomaa. The supposedly ‘provisional’ nature of that government did not stop it taking measures to further impoverish working-class households, particularly through higher prices for gas, fuel and electricity.

The great paradox of this election is that the right-wing parties – whether they are the so-called ‘modernists’ such as Nidaa Tounes, or right-wing Islamists like Ennahda and the likes – openly display their pro-capitalist programme: moving the retirement age from 60 to 62, removal of state subsidies on basic items, liberalisation of commodity prices, privatisation of the energy sector and the banks, etc. On the other side, however, there is almost no left force seriously challenging this kind of rhetoric.

Many people understand the limitations of this new ‘democracy’. Although around 100 parties and more than 13,000 candidates are running for election, the vast majority of them, notwithstanding some nuances, defend the same general programme and economic system, in the service of the ruling classes, the imperialist powers and their financial institutions.

The Popular Front

It is clear that the programme of the Popular Front is far from any meaningful socialist programme. Over time, the leadership of the Popular Front has deeply softened its speech, filing away in the archives many of its previous, more radical measures. It is looking more and more for common ground between capital and labour. Its spokesman, Hamma Hammami, even said in an interview that the programme of the Front is also addressed to ‘patriotic businessmen’. It does not even define itself as left, because “the situation doesn’t allow that at the moment”!

This confirms the profound rightward shift of the Front, due in large part to its total lack of internal democracy, and the increasingly narrow reformism and electoralism of the ‘Council of general secretaries’ which leads this coalition. This increasingly right-wing orientation has seriously undermined the Front’s capacity to provide a credible political alternative, not only for the elections, but also and above all to continue the revolution on the streets, and in the trade unions and workplaces.

Its rank-and-file could limit the damage by drawing on the recognition by many of the courage and boldness of the Front’s activists over many years, including during the darkest days of the dictatorship. Unfortunately, from a programmatic point of view, the workers, youth, the poor and unemployed often find it difficult to distinguish between the Popular Front and the other parties in this election.

The CWI in Tunisia will not echo the siren calls for a ‘useful vote’ – for a ‘tactical’ vote for the least-bad candidate, the lesser evil – which is often, in effect, a justification to restore to power one of the two ruling capitalist parties.

Although we understand those who will not go to vote, we believe that in the face of the danger of the return of former RCDists –the former ruling party officials-, of Ennahda, and other pro-market careerists in the Assembly and in government, we cannot take a position of ‘neutrality’ as if all politicians are one and the same. This is especially the case in light of the fact that some working-class and militant lists do exist in some regions. They provide a route, although often insufficient, to continue the revolutionary struggle and rebuild a political tool for workers, the poor masses and the revolution.

It is in this sense that we encourage workers and youth in Tunisia to vote for the most left and most combative lists possible, depending on the situation in the various governorates. This might result in a vote for the Popular Front in some specific areas but, sometimes, for other independent lists, or for those who have split from the Front.

Our attention focuses particularly on the case of the local list of the Popular Front in the district of Sidi Bouzid, led by Mbarka Brahmi, the widow of the left-wing MP Mohamed Brahmi, assassinated last July (this list also includes the militant political and union leader, Hidouri Abdessalem, member of the regional office of the UGTT in Sidi Bouzid); on the list called ‘La haute voix de la region oubliée du Kef’ (‘the strong voice for the forgotten region of Le Kef’) in Le Kef region; or on the list led by the popular union leader, Adnane Hajji, in the mining area of Gafsa.

This electoral campaign has shown more than ever the need for an independent and combative political alternative that can express on a mass scale the voice of workers and young revolutionaries. Good results for the above lists would at least put this discussion back on the table, offering a potential linchpin to rebuild such a force after the elections.

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October 2014