While the media's attention has so far focused on the ascendance of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, a perhaps more surprising story has been the freefall of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). While the party had the support of 16% of probable voters according to the last poll, they have so far (as of 8:00 pm Tunisian time) taken only 4 out of 81 possible seats, or just under 5%.
The regional office of the party at the Tunis 1 district presented an image of discord and disarray yesterday. Party officials shouted at each other, the conversation apparently centering on who to blame for the crushing defeat in their district.
Wahiba, the Secretary General of Bab Jdid sat down with Tunisia Live reporters to convey some of the numbers of a polling station in her district: out of 827 votes, just 27 for her party. The conversation was interrupted by a phone call from her son. Mom, Ennahda is winning. It's time to come home, her son reportedly told her. Upon hearing the news, she broke down in tears.
The reasons for the party's collapse are manifold: poor organization and lack of communication, but perhaps above all, a sense that the PDP was not really committed to revolutionary change.
Tunisian citizens expressed themselves frankly and clearly: they wanted a rupture with the old system, said Omar Mestiri, co-founder of the online newspaper and radio station Kalima, a prominent dissident voice before the revolution. He went on, The PDP played the card of concession, of trying to improve the old system.
The PDP's list of compromises with the old guard started shortly before the revolution and continued throughout the electoral campaign. On January 13th, the day before ex-president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, it was one of the only parties to accept the administration's proposal to form a coalition government. In April they voted against disallowing former members of Ben Ali's RCD party from running for election. They also supported the interim government of Mohamed Ghannouchi, an unpopular figure who was forced to leave after massive street protests persisted through February.
Perhaps even the political style of party leaders Nejib Chebbi and Maya Jbiri were seen as reminiscent of the regime: “The people didn't want a cult of personality around another person,” said Mestiri.
Besides a lack of vigor in revolutionary spirit, the party made other political blunders that led them to be viewed as a party of the elite rather than a party of the people.
More than any other party, the PDP positioned themselves against Ennahda. In an interview before the election, a member of the party's political office said quite simply, “We are the opposite of Ennahda.”
While many Tunisians are obviously unhappy with Ennahda’s religious politics, such an uncompromising stance by the PDP was unlikely to please a large portion of voters, many of whom respect Ennahda's role in resistance to the deposed dictator.
Throughout the campaign season, Tunisian media were frequently accused of showing bias against the moderate Islamist party. This bias became a major political issue this month, as a scandal erupted over the private television station Nessma TV's airing of the animated film Persepolis. The film depicts the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran after that country's revolution, and many Tunisian's saw in the station's choice of timing a heavy-handed message against Ennahda.
The PDP came out in support of Nessma.
As it became clear that the party was on track to lose, the PDP's rank and file began to come forward with their frustration. They spoke of a lack of communication between party administration and members, as well as a gap between the head office and regional offices.
According to party member Mostafa Zehi, “The main office is marginalizing its members and will start losing them if they continue this way.”
Chokri Chaaben, of the PDP's Kabariya office, was dissatisfied at the impulsive and provocative tone which the party leaders took in the media, without sufficient consultation at other levels of the organization.
Mohamed Belhaj, a member of the party's Bab Souika district office, was frustrated by the party's willingness to work with figures from the deposed regime, stating, “The participation of Nejib Chebbi in the interim government was a dark moment in the history of the PDP.”
Many partisans hinted that they would like to see Chebbi and Jbiri replaced.
The PDP's campaign season was already marked by scores of resignations and, in the wake of the disappointing results, several regional offices have been closed and many staff members fired. The future of what was once considered Tunisia's major center-left party has never been so uncertain.
Wiem Melki contributed reporting.