TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s main Islamist party is ready to form a coalition government with secular rivals including former officials who worked with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before he was toppled in 2011, the party’s chief said.
Tunisians go to the polls later this month for legislative elections in one of the last steps to full democracy after approving a new constitution last year and ending a political crisis between Islamists and secular opposition.
Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist party Ennahda, said the North African country still needed a consensus to keep its fragile transition on track following the parliament vote on Oct. 26. A presidential ballot follows in November.
Three years after protests ousted Ben Ali, Tunisia is being hailed as a model for the region after overcoming the kind of political polarization and infighting suffered by Egypt and Libya following their 2011 revolts.
“Tunisia still needs a consensus between the Islamists and secularists because after elections we will not be in a stable democracy, but a transitional democracy. We need unity government to face all the challenges in our troubled region,” Ghannouchi told Reuters in interview.
Ennahda, whose leadership spent years in exile or jailed under Ben Ali, can work within a coalition government with its main rival secular party, Nida Tounes, and other parties which include former Ben Ali ministers, Ghannouchi said.
Ennahda won about 40 percent of seats in Tunisia’s transitional parliament after the first free election in 2011 and governed in a coalition before a crisis erupted over the assassination of two opposition leaders by militant gunmen.
Critics blamed Ennahda for being lax with Islamist extremists. After months of protests and talks, a consensus agreement emerged for Ennahda’s government to cede power to a non-partisan cabinet to end the deadlock.
Political compromise has more than once pulled Tunisia back from the brink, and helped keep it from the type of chaos now engulfing neighboring Libya, where armed factions and their political allies have set up rival governments.
Both in Libya and Egypt, bitter debate continues over the role of former regime officials.
But in Tunisia, former Ben Ali officials will have a strong presence in the parliamentary elections and analysts expect them to have ample chance in the elections in regional cities and towns where they still retain influence.
“All these parties are legal, so we are ready to work with them. We have no veto on any legal party,” Ghannounchi said.
For the first time since the 2011 “Jasmine revolution”, former officials from Ben Ali’s regime will be running for office again by representing various secular parties participating in the electoral race. They were temporarily banned from the first election.
Ennahda is confident it can repeat its last win in the legislature and hopes to secure 40 percent of seats in the next parliament, according Ghannouchi.
Most analysts expect Ennahda, one of the country’s most organized political movements, and Nida Tounes, to turn out the election winners.
Ghannouchi said Ennahda was well aware of the tough decisions needed to keep Tunisia’s economy on track, including subsidy cuts, new investment incentives and the restructuring public institutions.
“We have become more realistic and able to form a consensus with our rivals... We became part of the state and understand the problems and priorities of the country,” he said of his party’s two years in power.
During that time, critics blamed Ennahda for mismanaging the economy and trying to hold onto power. Still, the Islamist party remains a main contender.
Beji caid Essebsi, the head of Nida Tounes, said this week at the beginning of campaigning that Tunisians must choose between the party of 21st century which supports the values of modernity or forces seeking to take Tunisia back, in a reference to Ennahda.
Ghannouchi called for an end to divisive rhetoric, saying that the new constitution of united all Tunisians.
“All we are in the 21st century and we need important discussions about how to boost economy, education, health sector,” he said. “All parties must be together in the same boat for the success of the Tunisian revolution.”
Editing by Patrick Markey and Dominic Evans