Daphne McCurdy spells out lessons to be learned from the unexpected electoral success of a conservative businessman in Tunisia’s recent election.  

TUNIS, Tunisia — On October 23, Tunisians showed up in droves to vote in what were hailed as the Arab world’s first free and fair elections. Yet no sooner had international observers and media declared the elections a success than controversy and violence erupted, reminding people of the fragility of Tunisia’s transition and the challenges that yet remain. The tensions stemmed from the unexpected triumph of Aridha Chaabia (Popular Petition), a little known party led by a nebulous figure named Hachemi Hamdi. In fact, the success of Mr. Hamdi’s party, and the controversy it has provoked, offer a number of lessons about Tunisia’s still emerging politics.

Hamdi is a successful London-based businessman and the founder of two conservative satellite television channels. In the 1980s, he was a member of an Islamist opposition party called the Mouvement de Téndances Islamiste (MTI), which later changed its name to al-Nahda and swept last week’s election to win 41 percent of the vote. More recently, Hamdi has been accused of cutting deals with the Ben Ali regime and pushing pro-regime rhetoric on his channels. Before the elections, Hamdi barely figured into the political discourse; Aridha Chaabia was expected to perform so poorly that it was left off all public opinion polls. But through populist messages broadcast repeatedly on his satellite channels, in apparent violation of election laws restricting airtime allotted to each party, Aridha captured the attention — and, ultimately, the votes — of a large number of Tunisians. It won 19 of the 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly, which will draft the country’s constitution and design its government, making it the fourth best-represented party.

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