The Middle East Channel

Don’t Tunisians want to vote?

"When you walked in you chose a color — red, blue, green, or purple. Most people simply chose purple, went to the voting booth and left." says Ezzedine, a retired Tunis metro worker, describing how voting used to work in Tunisia. "But I had too much pride" he went on. "I would always pick all ...

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

"When you walked in you chose a color — red, blue, green, or purple. Most people simply chose purple, went to the voting booth and left." says Ezzedine, a retired Tunis metro worker, describing how voting used to work in Tunisia. "But I had too much pride" he went on. "I would always pick all the colors before going into the booth. Of course when I came out, I returned all but the purple, but I did not want to let them have my vote that easily."

The election of the constituent assembly in October will be the first opportunity for Tunisians to freely elect their leaders. While the Tunisian political process had been strained for some time, voter registration was expected to be straightforward. Opinion polls in June had shown that over 95 percent of Tunisians intended to vote in the country’s first free elections.

But the elections process so far, beginning with voter registration, has struggled to match Tunisians’ expectations. The process itself has been set back by bad timing, technical glitches, and confusing messages from elections officials. Many Tunisians openly express their incredulity that elections will truly bring the changes they risked their lives over in January’s uprising. This does not bode well for the homeland of the Arab revolution.

Voting under Ben Ali had always been a fraud, especially with reports that the voter rolls were filled with dead people. And the results, including an astounding 99.45 percent vote for Ben Ali in 1999, only made the voting process that much more ridiculous for those who, because of their positions in the party, their bosses, or their presumed posthumous support, cast their ballots for the deposed president.

This time was supposed to be different. Breaking from the tradition of organizing elections through the mistrusted Ministry of the Interior, the elections were to be organized by the Independent Elections Commission (ISIE). The ISIE was charged with registering Tunisians, establishing legitimate voter lists, and carrying out free elections on October 23. The elections had already been postponed, ostensibly to buy time for proper elections. This was controversial, especially for supporters of the Islamist party Ennahdha, who had been leading in all opinion polls and thus appeared to be the most affected by the decision. Social instability, including sit-ins and ongoing violence followed the announcement of the delay.

Despite these setbacks, on July 19, billboards across the country were unfurled, ads appeared on TV and radio, and a slick new website was unveiled. A small, but active online community buzzed about getting everyone possible registered and ensuring that officials acted fairly and honestly. But hope soon turned to disappointment as a problem with the ISIE’s central server rendered impossible the first day’s registration. As the week went on, activists and officials alike realized that something else was wrong: the enthusiasm they had expected was not there.

Voter registration after the first week stood at less than 1 million, among a voting population of almost 8 million. By the end of the second week, it was clear that even registering half of the population would be difficult, and the head of ISIE, Kamel Jendoubi, announced that prospective voters would have an extra two weeks to register. By the end of the third week, Jendoubi, speaking to the High Commission, announced that voter registration would not be necessary in order to vote in the coming elections, a national identity card would suffice. This ensures that despite low voter registration, all adult Tunisians with an ID will be able to cast ballots come October. But it will also complicate the work of election officials, in particular their ability to accurately distribute ballots to polling places. 

The problem is not mechanical. Despite the initial glitches, the ISIE mobilization campaign to get voters registered has been well organized. The simplicity of the registration process itself has surprised Tunisians, used to a bureaucracy not known for its efficiency. Potential voters could even register seven days a week at the local Carrefour supermarket in Tunis.

Despite these efforts to engage Tunisians to register, most could not be bothered. Following the ISIE announcement about voting with national ID cards, many expressed frustration that the government would spend so much money on a registration campaign and delay the transition, only to announce that registration was not even necessary. Meanwhile Tunisians remained unhappy with a transitional government that has appeared paralyzed to address the economic problems facing the country.

The biggest concern, unanticipated until recently, is whether Tunisian enthusiasm can be restored and strong voter participation ensured. The demographics of those registered have been troubling, with noticeably small numbers of both women and young people.

What do the lackluster results of the voter registration campaign portend for elections, now less than 10 weeks away? Theories abound about why Tunisians have resisted calls to register, but polls have shown that Tunisians are confused about the process, frustrated by political parties, and skeptical about the ability of their county to successfully make the transition to democracy. In particular, Tunisians continue to be ill-informed about the duties of the constituent assembly. Many believe it is only more of the same, that they will be electing a new president and parliament, only to restore the same governmental system in place prior to the uprising.

While the ISIE has recently begun a series of ads to explain the constituent assembly to voters, political parties seem to be in a different world. Since campaigning began in earnest in July, political debate has centered on controversies at the High Commission, including a campaign finance law designed to limit foreign and corporate donations, and the withdrawal or threat thereof from the High Commission of three of the largest parties. Center left parties regularly trade volleys with the Islamist Ennahdha over its commitment to the revolution, a nebulous concept for a revolution without leaders. Noticeably absent from these public debates are proposals about how the parties will approach redrafting the constitution or how to address the moribund economy. In a July survey, over 60 percent of Tunisians were undecided about who to vote for.

Most strikingly, many Tunisians, particularly youth, seem to have tuned out. Initially the drivers of both the uprising and subsequent protests against the interim government which brought about key changes — including the proposal to elect a constituent assembly –Tunisian youth have been largely absent from recent public debate.

The consequences of Tunisian disillusionment have the potential to be the biggest setback yet in their transition to democracy. If a majority of Tunisians abstain from voting or there are many irregularities on election day, this could play into the hands of parties and groups that feel the election results do not represent their interests. The winning parties could be de-legitimized and the constituent assembly would likely face similar problems to those faced by the High Commission. This would, ironically, extend the transition and delay long awaited economic and political reforms.

As the elections approach, voter mobilization may ultimately be driven more by peer pressure than by politicians, much like the forces that mobilized Tunisians in January. For Ezzedine, he brings the subject everywhere he goes. "When I go to the market or to the mosque, I tell my neighbors and friends, ‘you have to go register, you have to vote, don’t miss this chance.’ I was born before our independence, and this will be the first time I will have voted freely."

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