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Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD)
Socialist Destourian Party (PSD)
Neo-Destour Party

The country's first political party, the Destour (Constitution) Party, emerged from the nationalist movement in 1920. Reacting against the elitism of much of the party's French-educated, middleclass membership and against its goal of limited legal reforms within the French protectorate, a group of young Destour members, led by Bourguiba, founded the Neo-Destour Party in 1934. Neo-Destourians led the independence movement that resulted in self-governing autonomy in 1955 and in complete Tunisian independence on March 20, 1956.

While the French laid down the foundation for a centralized authority with a professional civil service, a standing army and police, and a judicial system, no democratic political institutions were established. The French contributed to democratization in Tunisia unintentionally, however, by providing a French education to the Tunisian elite. Through their studies, members of this group, which included Bourguiba himself, developed an understanding of democracy in Europe and of secularism. It was this group that emerged as the political successors to the French. Tunisians with more traditional and Islamic education were unable to gain the political power of the more secular elite. Two examples are illustrative of this. The first is the split in the national movement of the Destour party in the 1930s and the emergence of the Neo-Destour party under the leadership of Bourguiba. The second is the defeat of Ben Yousif in the struggle for control over the Neo-Destour Party in the 1950s.

The liberal reputation of the Bourguiba regime was misleading. The image of Bourguiba's Tunisia as a liberal system was based partly on the regime's cultural policies and partly on its pro-Western foreign policy. Its reputation rested primarily on the personal status laws, under which women were given equal status under the law, polygyny was prohibited, and age limits were established for the marriage of girls. However, the regime could be better described as politically pragmatic and relatively tolerant. Post-colonial Tunisia was liberal in cultural matters only and authoritarian politicaly and economically. For political reasons western capitals by and large overlooked the regime's violations of political rights.

The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years -- including when it was known as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD) -- and still dominated political life through the year 2010. The political organization of Bourguiba and his fellow nationalists was renamed the Destourian Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Destourien-PSD) in 1964. A populist party active at all levels of the society, its chief functions were to rally public opinion behind government policies and to channel local reactions upward to the national leadership. The PSD's goal was to ensure national unity, which in political terms meant confining free political competition within the framework of a single party; the habit of discipline among a large and stable majority could counterpose opposition minorities while providing them with a channel for the expression of their views. Formally the party-like the government-purported to be representative and democratic, but in practice it too was subject to executive guidance that transcended statutes.

Membership in the party was open to anyone who is not a member of another party, who agrees to pay regular dues, and who adheres to the party's principles. Officially, the total membership was 750,000 in 1984, implying the near doubling of its strength within a decade and representing roughly one in three of all citizens eligible to vote. An active party role was considered indispensable for senior officials in government and quasi-government posts.

The Bourguiba regime featured a dirigiste state dominated by the ruling party which sought to modernize the economy and promote a secular, Western-leaning culture. The social unrest that surfaced in the late 1970s was laid to resentment at the uneven distribution of the benefits of economic development and the persistent problem of unemployment. Political opposition focused on demands for party pluralism as an alternative to dominance by the Destourian Socialist Party. Another serious source of resistance to the regime was posed by the Islamic renewal that challenged the secularization of Tunisian society promoted by Bourguiba.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:15 ZULU