Tunisia’s Test

This month, the country that started everything will host the first post-Arab Spring election -- and the people who overthrew a government in January will find out whether they have what it takes to build a new one.


TUNIS, Tunisia — On the eighth floor of a whitewashed building in downtown Tunis, Kamel Jendoubi sits bleary-eyed at a desk drowning in papers, his day full of meetings and far from over despite the darkening sky outside his window.

Jendoubi is president of Tunisia’s Independent High Election Committee (ISIE by its French initials), tasked with supervising the country’s first elections since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Scheduled for Oct. 23, they will also be the first popular elections in any country whose ruler was ousted by the Arab Spring. Unlike Libya, Tunisia has experienced relatively little violence, and unlike Egypt, the old regime has relatively little power to perpetuate itself.

But Jendoubi’s task isn’t easy. He’s beset with a growing roster of concerns, ranging from reports of election corruption to limited resources and experience. "For me, we don’t have enough election officials. … We are hearing rumors of parties and candidates giving money to voters," he says.

Jendoubi says that ISIE has received reports that political parties are giving furniture to voters, luring parents whose children are moving to new, unfurnished apartments for the beginning of the university term. Other reports describe political parties promising to buy lambs for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Despite such reports, Jendoubi says that his committee does not have sufficient evidence of such claims or enough employees to investigate further. Asked whether these reports might be attempts by competing parties to discredit their opponents, Jendoubi, tilting his head, says, "It’s possible."

Anything does seem possible these days in Tunisia. The election will determine a constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution for the country. Many Tunisians hope that by holding successful elections, their country can be a model for democratic transition and not only a model for revolution. The people of the region "would see that it is possible for an Arab country with limited resources to have real, free, and fair elections," says Amine Ghali, program director of Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, a Tunisian NGO. The rest of the world is watching, too; U.S. President Barack Obama told Tunisian interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in Washington this month that "the United States has enormous stake in seeing success in Tunisia."

But despite the best efforts of the ISIE and a multitude of NGOs, there are signs that Tunisia’s elections may not go that smoothly. With more than 10,000 candidates from over 100 parties seeking to be elected to the 217-member assembly, Tunisia’s electoral body has had enormous hurdles to overcome in a short amount of time. Political advertising was banned in early September to placate fears that untraceable political contributions could harm electoral transparency. Instead, all parties have been given brief, three-minute radio and television spots. Political posters must be placed in designated spots, black-painted grids on the sides of buildings with spaces for two 8-by-12-inch posters for each list of candidates. "The concept is good," says Maria Espinosa, the deputy head of the European Union election observer mission in Tunisia. "It may be a strange campaign, but we find it fair enough."

Problems persist, however: Campaign posters have been torn down in the capital, and Tunisian media report that similar cases of vandalism have taken place in other cities as well. One top campaigner for a leftist party confided that smaller parties with few resources are refraining from posting ads until just before the election, fearing that they will be torn down. Surprisingly, many of the larger parties have also failed to fill their designated spots, signaling a larger problem of inexperience not only with free elections, but also with campaigning.

ISIE currently employs 810 trained election officials, and Jendoubi hopes to have 1,000 in the next two weeks. Training of ISIE election officials took place during one two-day session in September, with legal training provided by Tunisian lawyers and with technical training for ISIE’s online system provided by international communications NGO ICT4Peace. Over the summer, ISIE trained over 3,000 election observers working through Tunisian NGOs. The committee’s election officials, Jendoubi says, have largely been hired from Tunisia’s sea of unemployed university graduates, a demographic that was instrumental in forcing the downfall of Ben Ali.

But ISIE, which was created by the interim government in April, is constrained by the number of roles it must play. Its mandate ranges from the very specific, such as defining electoral wards and coordinating candidate lists, to the very broad, such as "guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote." With limited time, resources, and experience, ISIE has decided to use text messages, sent from officials and citizens in various districts to its Tunis headquarters, to report electoral problems as they arise. But insufficient publicity means that ISIE has not received any citizen reports so far — and while the system is neat in theory, it’s potentially ripe for abuse. "In some cases we may need the police," Jendoubi says. "And the army will be responsible for logistics on election day, including transporting ballot boxes."

But many Tunisians remain wary of the police and the army. Tanks and soldiers still stand guard outside the Interior Ministry, whose underground prison cells bore witness to some of the worst human rights abuses under the Ben Ali regime. The police force, of which Ben Ali was chief before assuming total power through a coup in 1987, was responsible for killing protesters during the January protests that brought down the regime. Last month, interim Prime Minister Essebsi got into hot water with the police after saying that a small percentage of them were "monkeys," and that a housecleaning was in order. The comment drew the ire of police unions but was welcomed by many Tunisians.

Despite these concerns, Lotfi Azzouz, director of Amnesty International in Tunis, remains optimistic. He believes that the police and army will be important in ensuring proper security on election day and that they have a vested interest in seeing the balloting proceed smoothly. "We are confident that the elections will be free," he says. Espinosa, who has worked on elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, gives the ISIE high marks as well. "For the time being they have been absolutely transparent with us. They are more transparent than usual, more than others," she says.

But elections for the constituent assembly are only the first step on Tunisia’s path to democracy. Mohsen Kalboussi, an ISIE election-training volunteer coordinator and former zoology researcher, says that ISIE’s priority is to "create the best conditions for the next elections." And while Tunisia struggles to find its political voice after decades of imposed silence, Jendoubi knows the stakes are high. "We are learning," says Jendoubi, "but we have to succeed."

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