The Middle East Channel

Putting Tunisian democracy to the test

This Sunday, Tunisians will finally go the polls for their first real democratic elections. After ten long months of political polarization, frustrated popular hopes, and complaints about mismanagement by the interim government, the elections to the constituent assembly mark a crucial step in a transition to a representative and accountable democracy. Many now fear that ...

Erik Churchill
Erik Churchill

This Sunday, Tunisians will finally go the polls for their first real democratic elections. After ten long months of political polarization, frustrated popular hopes, and complaints about mismanagement by the interim government, the elections to the constituent assembly mark a crucial step in a transition to a representative and accountable democracy. Many now fear that the elections will fail to resolve deep societal divides, or will even make things worse by empowering Islamists or restoring former regime figures. But those fears should not overshadow the hope that Tunisia has a chance to get things right and once again set an example for the Arab world. 

The months since the January revolution which brought down President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab spring have been undeniably turbulent ones in Tunisia. The transition period has shown deep fissures in Tunisian society. Long deprived of the right to speak publicly, post-revolutionary politics have shown that Tunisians hold many different, and often mutually exclusive, views on the future of their country. Tribal violence has recurred in south and central Tunisia, sometimes in connection with the Libyan civil war. Workers have flexed their muscles through a string of sit-ins that many business leaders have characterized as debilitating to their struggling industries.

These problems therefore place a heavy burden on Sunday’s elections, which will decide the composition of the 217 member Constituent Assembly. Tunisians will be voting for a Constituent Assembly which will both become the sovereign, governing body for the country and be tasked with writing a new constitution. Voting will take place in 27 districts in Tunisia and 6 abroad, with each constituency choosing its assembly members using a closed-list proportional representation system. Most current polls suggest that the elections will produce a fragmented assembly, with a wide range of parties claiming at least a few seats. Such an outcome will further test their ability to compromise across sharp ideological divides and to tackle the difficult agenda facing Tunisia in the coming months and years.

There are many open questions about the length of time it will take to formalize the constitution and whether it will be put to a referendum. Several political parties have agreed to limit the duration of the assembly to one year, though the agreement is non-binding. It is assumed that the assembly will take on the executive and legislative powers of the state while it conducts its mandate. The elections, if all goes well, will therefore finally establish a democratically legitimate government. They will reveal the true strength of Islamism, in particular the Islamist party Ennahdha. Perhaps as important, they will demonstrate whether secular and Islamist forces are capable of compromise — and if so, whether their supporters will accept these political compromises.

The transition process, including the elections, has been placed under the guidance of what has become known as the Ben Achour commission, after its chairman, Tunisian lawyer Yadh Ben Achour. There have been controversies. For instance, Ennahdha felt it was underrepresented on the commission and eventually withdrew following the postponement of elections in June. But Ben Achour has managed to keep the trust of most of the actors — at least on an interim basis.

Working under the Ben Achour Commission, the Independent Electoral Commission (ISIE), led by Kamel Jendoubi, has shown competence, independence, and ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Although ISIE encountered voter apathy during its registration drive in July, it has shown its commitment to fairness through several difficult decisions — most importantly, the banning of political advertising in the final weeks of the election. It has worked to ensure that voters understand the role of the constituent assembly (a confusing concept, especially given the ambiguity of its mandate) and the logistics of voting — to both literate and illiterate Tunisians. It has facilitated the presence of thousands of foreign and domestic elections observers in the last month in the run up to the election. Despite lingering reservations over the transition process, most Tunisians are eager to cast their ballots and are reasonably confident in the electoral authority.

The government, under the presidency of Fouad Mebazzaa has not enjoyed such confidence. Since January there have been several cabinet reshuffles and two prime ministers. Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi has mostly appeared to simply want to finish its term without problems, although Essebsi has recently indicated that he is willing to stay on after the elections (at 84, he is unlikely to be more than a short-term solution for a new government). The government has seemed unable to address the two primary concerns of voters: an economy in crisis and a dramatic rise in crime. The former has been caused by a catastrophic drop in tourism and general instability. The latter has posed a unique problem as the security forces have been handicapped by low morale, a lack of respect by many Tunisians, and the interior ministry’s inability to adapt its hard-handed policing techniques. This has resulted in several high profile clashes between police and protesters that many have viewed as a return to the practices used under the former regime.

The electoral environment has been shaped by the dramatic rise of the Islamist party Ennahda, which has caused sharp polarization around questions of the place of religion in public life. Since the return of Ennahda leader Rashed Ghannouchi on January 30 after 20 years of exile, his party has dominated the political discourse. Its grassroots popularity and organizational skills, coupled with fears from its opponents have guaranteed that Ennahdha’s voice is heard on every issue. Since the party’s official legalization on March 1, the party has campaigned to be the voice of the revolution. It represents an unquestionable break from the Ben Ali regime.

In addition to Ennahdha, Salafist movements have become more vocal and visible in Tunisian society. Most recently, a string of protests have targeted a privately-owned television channel after airing the Irano-French cartoon Persepolis, wherein the main character imagines the figure of god.

Throughout the campaign Ennahdha has carefully veered toward moderation, promising to keep the liberal family code of former President Bourguiba while returning the country to its Muslim roots. It has repeatedly declared its commitment to democracy and to national unity, and has worked hard to reassure voters worried that it might abuse its power. On cultural issues it has steered clear of taking hard positions, condemning violence by extremists, but promoting Islamic values (even at the expense of civil rights). But many doubters remain unconvinced. Critics contend that Ennahdha has maintained a double discourse, speaking one way in the media and another to its followers on the ground.

The election campaign has revealed Ennahdha’s undeniable popularity across the country, with well-attended rallies from the downtrodden villages in central Tunisia to the upscale suburbs of Tunis. In many towns, Ennahdha is the only party with an office, campaign literature, or regular rallies. While pre-election polling has been banned, polls conducted this summer estimated Ennahdha’s support between 25 to 40 percent. In a recent trip from the eastern tip of Cap Bon to the western towns of Tabarka and Jendouba, I found Ennahdha to be far and away the most visible party. I spoke with several Tunisians who were frustrated by their inability to interact with any party other than Ennahdha. Although they, along with many in their villages, were against Ennahdha, they found it impossible to identify with other parties, if for no other reason than lack of exposure.

Smaller parties (over 111 have been officially recognized since the revolution), have failed to attract widespread attention, and on the officially sanctioned places for campaign advertising, it is common to see blank spaces for the small party lists. Many of these independent parties and lists were integrally involved in the revolution. They often characterize their campaigns as upholding the ideals of the revolution. These groups, such as the Pirate Party, receive some grassroots support through social networks, but are not visible in mainstream media sources. Other lists are simply neighborhood groups that filed the appropriate paperwork but did not seriously undertake campaign activities. Most of the new parties have shown organizational indiscipline and failed to widely inspire voters.

A number of reasonably well-organized parties have emerged as alternatives to Ennahdha. Most popular among these are the PDP, Ettaktol, PDM, CPR, UPL, and Afeq. These secular parties have various constituencies from workers to business groups. PDP and Ettaktol are the only two that appear able to receive over 10 percent of the vote, meaning the likely coalition of a combination of these parties following the election results. Ettaktol has indicated its willingness to work in coalition with any partner, while others have demonstrated their commitment to secularism and would likely remain outside any coalition including Ennahdha. Several parties have campaigned actively against Ennahdha. The PDP has actively campaigned against extremism and for freedom of expression and has been identified as the sponsor of a commercial showing the disaster that could afflict Tunisia should it choose extremist parties, a thinly veiled attack on many Tunisian’s fears of Ennahdha.

Several parties have been attacked because of their perceived closeness to the former ruling party, the RCD. Two major parties are headed by former RCD officials, El Watan and Moudabara. Other parties have been linked to the RCD through association. The UPL, for example, is run and financed by a millionaire business tycoon named Sami Riahi. Although the UPL insists that it carries no ties to the former regime, in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Riahi’s success inextricably ties him to Ben Ali. Until the ban on advertising had taken effect, Riahi’s party accounted for 23 percent of all political print advertising in Tunisia. Since the ban took effect, critics have said that he has engaged in astroturfing — or renting a crowd to artificially demonstrate grassroots support. Other parties, such as Afeq, a pro-business party, have had difficulty showing Tunisians that their leadership has not come from the RCD’s ranks. Many Tunisians fear that former officials will vote en masse for these parties, hoping to return to power the beneficiaries of Ben Ali’s regime.

The success of Sunday’s election will be judged first and foremost on whether Tunisia will continue with its peaceful transition to democracy. While most observers expect calm, a slight disruption, especially if centered around the fairness of the polls, could quickly degenerate into large disturbances. Secondly, a strong turnout will show the legitimacy and support of Tunisians for the democratic process. The weakness of the voter registration drive gives cause for concern that Tunisians will not show up on Sunday, potentially delegitimizing the results. Thirdly, Sunday’s vote will test whether the government will be able to accept the result of Ennahdha’s presumed victory. A result of less than 20 percent could raise calls that the voting was rigged, while an absolute majority by Ennahdha could spark protests from secular groups. This is known as the Algerian scenario, after the Islamist victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in the country’s 1991 elections, which sparked a backlash from military regime and ultimately resulted in civil war.

Finally, despite foreign and domestic observers and the demonstrated competence of the electoral commission, many Tunisians have expressed doubts that the elections will be truly free and fair. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is commonplace to hear arguments that the outcome has been predetermined by the West. If Sunday’s elections dispel these rumors, Tunisians will not look at this election as the result of their uprising, but rather, the first step in the process of controlling their destiny as an independent, democratic country.

Erik Churchill is an independent development consultant based in Tunisia. His blog, "A 21st Century Social Contract," offers a perspective on life in Tunis since the fall of President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali.

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