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Nearing Tunisia’s 2014 legislative and presidential elections (October 26 and November 23 respectively), national and international interlocutors are in the midst of debate around the role of consensus, past, present, and future, in Tunisian politics. The proposal of a president-by-consensus has prompted the argument that the exclusive selection of a head of government by key political figures is contradictory to the democratic imperative for citizens to cast votes. The widely-held perspective is often overlooked or ignored by foreign media for whom «consensus» has become a loosely-tossed about buzzword, broadly attributed to the country’s post-revolution successes. That, for example, «In January 2014, Ennahda, then the ruling party, peacefully resigned as a part of a compromise with the political opposition,» is often counted among the primary political moves that has enabled progress and transition in Tunisia, whereas national media sources readily recall Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi’s remark about the party’s «departure from government but not from power.»

Does Consensus Equate Atonic Democracy?

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A lack of consensus engenders dangerous political tensions, but on the other hand an excess of consensus renders democracy atonic. International Crisis Group, The Tunisian Exception: Success and Limitations of Consensus

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A report published on June 5 by the International Crisis Group (ICG) that examines «The Tunisian Exception: Success and Limitations of Consensus,» is, in spite of its comparatively nuanced analysis, the subject of criticism in a Nawaat article that argues against the study’s consensus-or-else prescription for Tunisia in anticipation of elections before the end of the year.

If…the ICG report envisions, in the short-term and without clearly stating it, English- or American-style bipolarization of the Tunisian political scene, this reflects a grave mis-evaluation of the context of Tunisian politics, advocating that we tread a dangerous slope [towards atonic democracy]. And from this perspective, we tend to have more faith in the, sometimes maladroit, it is true, wisdom of Tunisian political forces than that inspired by the report in question, and, ultimately, that of the greatest safeguard, public opinion, which has always succeeded in invoking collective wisdom at every crucial step of the winding path of democratic transition. It has not always been easy, but we are getting there. Yassine Bellamine, The International Crisis Group Report: Praise for Consensus, Atonic Democracy

Whereas it is not to be dismissed that Western media’s widespread praise for and promotion of consensus may very well constitute a soft power mechanism, it is also worth noting that what the ICG report advocates is not indefinite, indiscriminate consensus-driven practices.

Large political forces should therefore conserve the spirit of compromise that carried them through the last crisis, while accepting political competition.., reflect on the rules of the game of governance whatever the result of the next elections, which would reassure each party and anchor political stability in the democratization of the State as opposed to calculations of power-sharing. ICG, Success and Limitations of Consensus

One reader commentary accordingly refuted criticism presented in the Nawaat article, re-emphasizing the designated «limitations of consensus» that delineate its selective and specific application, and distinguishing necessary, healthy political party competition from enmity spurred by the prioritization of personal/partisan gain and power that undermines adherence to democratic political processes:

Agreeing in writing on the rules of conduct does not mean having a common political program.

By definition, when the leaders of elected parties argue amongst themselves in order to resolve conflicts, they surpass strictly democratic logic and make decisions that are not a direct reflection of the will of the people.

The challenge now is for the parties to accept political competition and its results, which is fundamentally anti-consensual. They must at the same time prolongate not absolute consensus, but certain aspects.., not a power-sharing plan stricto sensu, as the study shows that this would be dangerous, but consider themselves as purely political opponents whose intentions are not to completely change Tunisian society in the case that they are elected.

Reader response to The International Crisis Group Report: Praise for Consensus, Atonic Democracy

Quelling Political Divisiveness

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…many citizens do not feel represented by Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes, or the far-left Popular Front. With the current bipolar political constellation, this section of the population risks not casting a vote at all.» Anne Wolfe, Can Secular Parties Lead the New Tunisia?

In a recent report published by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that focuses on the counter-balance to consensus, political divisiveness, author Anne Wolfe examines what the aforementioned Nawaat article refers to as «the tensions emerging from the polarization between the party qualified as ‘Islamist,’ Ennahda, and the other qualified as ‘secularist,’ Nidaa Tounes.» Although, as Wolfe points out, «Tunisian politics are more complex than a binary competition between secularists and Islamists,» it is the so-called ‘bipolarization’ of party politics at the heart of the debate around consensus and which Wolfe captures in her examination of the country’s fragmented political forces:

Since 2012, secular parties have profited from a deteriorating economic situation and the emergence of religious violence, which has led wide sectors of the population to fear unchecked Islamism. Members of the National Salvation Front (NSF), an alliance of secular opposition forces, blamed Ennahda for the assassinations of two opposition figures in 2013, which stoked the fires of anti-Islamism in the country.

Relying on anti-Islamic rhetoric reflects not only these parties’ detachment from the population’s needs and expectations but also their lack of a strong unifying vision and strategy…secular parties will have to go beyond resorting to fiercee anti-Islamic rhetoric and instead propose concrete solutions to Tunisia’s socioeconomic and security challenges. This approach should include a reevaluation of the government that stepped down in January, a coalition between Ennahda and the secular Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR) parties known as the Troika.

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Despite the consistent popularity of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes in the polls, that there is a large segment of the population not inclined toward either major party presumably factors into the disappointingly poor initial turnout for voter registration which the ISIE has attempted to remedy by extending the registration period until the 29th of the month. «It is a Tunisian road more divided than ever,» in the words of Nawaat author Seif Soudani who invoked the political divisiveness demonstrated by parties in their contrasting responses to the July 16 attack on Chaambi Mountain. Soudani’s portrayal of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes in the most recent Nawaat political review complements Wolfe’s descriptions of the two parties:

And as anticipated Islamist partisans marched on behalf of the El Fath Mosque, homogeneous in spite of Ennahda’s pious vow to assemble all citizens (political Islam is always caricaturely suspected of ties with jihadism).

For the head of Nidaa Tounes, a strong State is the universal panacea, or, plainly stated, the all-repressive State. This monolithic concept emerges from a certain nostalgia – «The State that we once knew is no longer. The State that once raised high the Tunisian flag is collapsed.» – a sort of fantasized glory that is particularly characterstic of Destourians.

Seif Soudani, «Terrorism,» Lassitude, Political Recuperation.

Pre-Election Consensus in Tunisia Prescribed as a Purely ‘Political and Moral Commitment

In the wake of the attack at Chaambi Mountain and the divergent responses of the country’s political forces, twenty-three parties as well as President Moncef Marzouki, ANC President Mustapha Ben Jaafar, and ISIE President Chafik Sarsar convened on July 22 at the Kasbah for the adoption of The Charter of Honour of Political Parties, Coalitions and Independent Candidates for Elections and Referenda of the Tunisian Republic. The written agreement and the event of its signing were the work of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) of Geneva, whose press release describes the «large number of political parties which have succeeded in this very moment of difficulty in concluding» what represents a formal commitment, «precisely and concretely, to respect a number of rules, principles, and values»:

Rejecting all forms of violence and working actively to ensure peaceful and non-violent political relations during the electoral process, as well as ensuring a co-ordinated response to anserious event (such as politically-motivated attacks). These commitments are all the more pertinent given the recent events that have devastated Tunisia.
Refraining from any action or conduct (such as abuse of power, corruption, illicit financing and pressure on voters) which may jeopardise the right of Tunisians to freely express their democratic choice through elections.
Promoting an atmosphere of peaceful and ethical conduct to help ensure that differences can be fully expressed during the electoral campaign without endangering stability and the continuation of the democratic process.

Source: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Signing of Tunisian Charter of Honour

The adoption of a charter signifying convergence on the ‘rules of the game’ is precisely the nature of formal agreement recommended by the International Crisis Group for continued, limited consensus, as spelled out in the aforementioned reader comment in response to Nawaat’s critique, and as is plain in ICG Tunisia Analyst Michael Ayari’s associated remark that

The essential thing is for them to agree in writing…The essential thing is for political forces to prepare for every possible scenario, to agree on the rules of the game beyond [what is elaborated] in the constitution and [so that] polarization does not return. Michael Ayari quoted in The International Crisis Group Report: Praise for Consensus, Atonic Democracy

Uncertainty and concerns about the degree and nature of political polarization that will follow the elections in October and November reflect fear that progress made over the past three years might be derailed. Because the notion of consensus in Tunisian politics has, in the course of its proliferation in political and academic discourse, taken on a number of dissimilar connotations, its potential as a pre-election means-to-an-end application is a point of contention in the media. Some–international figures (such as the International Crisis Group and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue) in particular–advocate for consensus specifically to discourage irrelevant politicking and to prioritize and solidify the integrity of political processes. Others, notably Tunisian interlocutors critical of foreign interests in the country’s politics, see consensus as a sort of lesser of evils, short-term concession to half-realized, atonic democracy in order to stay afloat until, for instance, the inevitable emergence of a third competitive political party that represents a viable alternative to the present presiding ‘Islamist’ and ‘secular’ parties.

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