A year ago, Nidaa Tounes topped the polls, now Tunisia's strongest party is breaking apart. The government coalition still holds, but the balance of power has changed.
The various wings of Tunisia's secular Nidaa Tounes party have been at odds for quite some time.
Now, the party has actually broken apart, just a year after winning both parliamentary and presidential elections and right on time for the fifth anniversary of the revolution that saw the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali on January 14, 2011.
Nidaa Tounes ("Call for Tunisia") was founded in 2012 by Beji Caid Essebsi, the country's current president, as a counterweight to the Islamist Ennahda party that dominated the country back then.
In the 2014 election campaign, Tunisia's two major political parties started out openly hostile, only to enter into a strategic alliance, a four-party coalition. Nidaa Tounes lost its political opponent, along with the party's most important election campaign issue.
Ever since, internal disagreements about the party's orientation have emerged more openly than before. Critics accuse aging President Essebsi of aiming to install his son Hafedh at the top of the party and as his successor. Nidaa Tounes, critics also say, lacks democratic structures. Years after its formation, the party still has no elected party committees.
Show of force
Last weekend, the wing affiliated with Essebsi and his son met in Sousse to work out structures for an interim period and prepare for a party convention scheduled for the end of July. At the same time, dissenters gathered in the capital Tunis to prepare for the creation of a new party, led by former Nidaa Tounes Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk as well as former board members and lawmakers who stepped down from their positions.
"Nidaa Tounes no longer exists!" declaimed Abada Kefi, one of 21 lawmakers who have resigned from Nidaa Tounes's parliamentary group. "There is no structure, there are no committees, there is no democracy and there are no ballot boxes." He added that party bosses rather than members decide on filling party positions. "All they are allowed to do is applaud," Kefi said, adding that the ministers for health and social affairs are leaving the party in protest.
While these politicians left Nidaa Tounes for partisan reasons, the party's rank and file is finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that their conservative party entered into a coalition with the Islamist Ennahda. "I voted for Nidaa Tounes and I'm very disappointed at how it has handled itself since the polls," Mokhtar says, adding that he hopes a new party to be launched by former Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk will advocate more democracy and stand up for the economy - without Ennahda.
The Nidaa Tounes group surrounding the president appears not to be concerned about its close quarters with the Islamists. Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi was invited as a guest at the gathering in Sousse, where he held a speech that was received with much enthusiasm. "Tunisia is like a bird, and Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes are its wings," Ghannouchi described the two parties' relations.
"Nidaa Tounes is nothing but Ennahda's appendix," argues the party's ex-lawmaker Abada Kefi. Ghannouchi's presence at the meeting validated his decision to resign from the party, he says.
New political balance of power
Now that Nidaa Tounes is breaking apart, its concept of balancing Tunisia's political landscape is a thing of the past, says Tunisian lawyer Slim Laghmani. After all, he adds, between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, it's always been about the identity of Tunisian society and never about political or economic issues.
The lawmakers' resignations have changed the balance of power in parliament and in the government: now the Islamists are the biggest power in parliament ahead of Nidaa Tounes. The as-of-yet unnamed bloc of dissenters is set to be the third-largest group. Nidaa Tounes lawmakers said on Wednesday that the UPL Free Patriotic Union, a junior partner in the four-party coalition, plans to join forces with the new parliamentary group - which in turn could make the prospective new party the strongest force in parliament.
"Once again, Ennahda is calling the shots in politics," Slim Laghmani says. However, the Islamist party that suffered substantial losses in the last election, isn't interested in officially taking on government responsibilities, he says. Instead, he predicts, Ennahda will use the current legislative period to prepare for the next elections.
Nidaa Tounes' former members plan to introduce their new party in March. A first test looms at the end of 2016, when Tunisians are scheduled to cast their ballots in municipal polls. The polls will show who benefited the most from the rift within Nidaa Tounes - the winner of the 2014 parliamentary vote.