Elections in Ukraine, Tunisia, hold lessons for Washington pols

WINNERS: Tunisian supporters of the anti-Islamist party Nidaa Tounes at a campaign rally last week.
WINNERS: Tunisian supporters of the anti-Islamist party Nidaa Tounes at a campaign rally last week. AFP/Getty Images

As we debate how Tuesday’s election results will affect government gridlock, I can’t help thinking about two other elections, held last week, in tiny Tunisia and embattled Ukraine, that offer valuable lessons for our own politics.

Tunisia is emerging as a model of political pragmatism that pols in Washington could learn from (and the only success story of the 2011 Arab Spring). Inside Ukraine, to the contrary, Russian support for radical separatists is destroying any hope of political compromise. Down that road lies endless conflict, and, in this case, endless civil war.

In Tunisia, a new secular party, Nidaa Tounes, beat out the Islamist party, Ennadha, which had swept to power after the ouster of a dictator in 2011. Although neither party won a clear majority in the elections, several things were remarkable about the results.

▪ First, unlike the other Arab countries that experienced upheavals in 2011, Tunisia has remained on the road to democracy, helped by its sizable middle class and women’s movement, strong unions and geographical closeness to Europe.

▪ Second, voters ousted the Islamists on pragmatic grounds — the party didn’t deliver the economic goods; even many devout Tunisians, who had backed Ennadha in 2011, voted differently this time.

▪ Third, the Islamists accept the results of the election, demonstrating, at least in Tunisia, that an Arab Islamist party can operate democratically. (Ennadha, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has far more shrewd and sophisticated leadership than did the Egyptian branch, which was ousted last year in a military coup.)

But what is most striking about the Tunisian ballot is that Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old statesman who heads Nidaa Tounes (with nearly 40 percent of the vote), and Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennadha (nearly 32 percent), seem to understand their country can’t move forward unless their parties find common ground.

Can anyone imagine such pragmatism in Washington, where tea-party Republicans decry compromise as surrender, and Republican leaders have defined success as opposing Obama? Will a Republican-led Congress, and a chastened Obama, be able to get things done?

I spoke by phone to Chema Gargouri, a Nidaa Tounes activist, to find out more about the pragmatism in Tunis. I asked how secularists could enter into a parliamentary coalition with the Islamists.

Her reply: “People are not seeing the importance of elections in changing their lives for the better, they are fed up, they want a government with vision. Nidaa Tounes won, but it has no big majority. It would be a big mistake to exclude Ennadha, the second-most important party; it might drive the country to a real division between some areas that are Islamist and some that are not.

One can only hope that Tunisian leaders can hold to such a vision. If they do, leaders in Washington should flock to Tunis to observe politicians who place the good of the country above parochial concerns.

In Ukraine, however, one can see what happens when pragmatic leaders are thwarted — in this case by the outside intervention of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who considers Ukrainian democracy a threat to his dreams of restoring a Russian empire.

Parliamentary elections in Ukraine were won by pro-European parties that promised to reform the corruption and centralized economy that are the legacy of the country’s communist past. In other words, Ukrainians voted for parties that upheld the vision of the Maidan revolution that led to the ouster of a pro-Moscow president last year. The small radical parties that were used by Putin as an excuse to label the Kiev government “fascist” won almost no seats.

Together with the recently elected president, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s political leaders were ready to offer autonomy and Russian-language rights to the country’s disaffected eastern regions, where so-called rebels, armed, funded, and led by Russian forces, had stirred up a civil war.

But the word compromise is not in Putin’s vocabulary. Instead, he backed ersatz elections in two eastern regions, and then recognized the separatist leaders who were chosen. Now Russia is in effective control of eastern chunks of Ukraine.

Ukraine stands as an extreme example of compromise denied. But in Tunisia, newly elected leaders talk of compromise in service of the country. Is anyone watching in Washington, D.C.?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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