Returning To Tunisia: An Overview of Elections


The first step in the construction of a pluralistic political system in Tunisia took place Oct. 23 when voters were called to elect 217 representatives to a Constituent Assembly that would be in place for one year with the objective of drafting a new constitution. The assembly would also elect a government that would run the country for the same period of time. The first free and fair elections in Tunisian history passed off without major problems and international observers praised authorities for the way in which the electoral process was conducted. A careful analysis of the results is therefore extremely important for two reasons. First, they determine the composition of the assembly, thereby giving an indication of the relative weight of competing parties and shedding light on the pluralism of Tunisian society so long repressed under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Second, the elections can serve as a guide to potential trends emerging across the Arab world.

To begin with, the relatively poor turnout for what were historic elections is an aspect that has not been sufficiently analyzed. While there was indeed a significant degree of enthusiasm and participation, there was also apathy and frustration with more than 44 percent of voters not turning out. A degree of apathy should be expected because it is a “physiological” phenomenon that plagues all electoral democracies, although such a low turnout is surprising in a democratizing country. Frustration with the slow pace of change was also very much in evidence, as many citizens feel that the revolution did not bring about the political and, crucially, material changes that were expected. The expectations of citizens were probably too high, but there has also been a more general failure on the part of domestic political actors and the international community to act on the legitimate demands for improved standards of living. Relatively low turnout has affected Moroccan and Egyptian elections as well, although in both countries, sections of the political establishment and society called for a polls boycott. Whatever the reasons, the issue of low turnout should not be underestimated insofar as embryonic pluralistic systems need to have widespread legitimacy if they are to survive. At the moment, many ordinary citizens are still reluctant to embrace electoral democracy because they believe that their vote is unlikely to affect the policies that elected representatives can and will implement. In this respect, there is great affinity between the disillusions with electoral politics that are found in nascent democracies and established ones.

The victory of the Islamist party Ennahda is another feature of the elections that deserves attention. Ennahda presented itself as a moderate, pro-democracy party with a socially conservative agenda and a plan to get the Tunisian economy growing. There was no mention of creating an Islamic state and introducing religion-based legislation. The party in fact distanced itself from the more religiously conservative elements in Tunisian society, preferring to focus its message on how social and political pluralism are assets that Tunisia should cherish to work its way out of the profound crisis that more than 50 years of dictatorship caused. With its reputation of genuine opposition to Ben Ali and through a very well-run campaign that included door-to-door canvassing of voters, Ennahda secured 90 seats out of 217, winning seats in all districts and even nine out of 18 in the foreign constituencies created for Tunisians living abroad. The success of Ennahda has been replicated in Morocco and Egypt where Islamist parties scored impressive victories. These successes should not come as a surprise even though Islamists did not trigger the popular protests that toppled Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and did not participate in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Morocco. The appeal of political Islam in Tunisia and largely across the region seems to stem from their perceived “moral superiority,” their organizational capacities and their clear message about ending corruption and creating jobs. In this respect, Islamist parties across the region, with the possible exception of more hardline Salafist formations, have abandoned their ideological rigidity and seem genuinely committed to political pluralism. In addition, Ennahda immediately offered to cooperate with secular parties and formed a three-party coalition government with long-standing ideological rivals to assuage fears of dominance and undemocratic behavior. The same applies to the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, which offered ideological rivals a stake in the new government. This is an important development that the international community should take seriously to engage finally with such parties rather than demonizing them. The Tunisian elections also demonstrated the strength of secular parties, particularly the ones left-of-center. While Ennahda’s score was impressive, it appeared more so because of the divisions that exist between different secular political sensibilities. Three secular parties with a substantial number of seats came in well behind Ennhada. But when one combines their seats, the picture is quite different, indicating that a more united secular front could compete on an equal footing with Islamists. Once again, this is an important aspect of elections in the Arab world that needs to be taken into account: Secular forces are present and strong, although, for the moment, divided.

Finally, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly has begun to institutionalize the changes that the revolution brought about. Three parties control the three most important institutional posts, suggesting that the era of one-party dominance is finished and that the new Tunisia will have to find its way toward development through democratic compromises sanctioned by the electorate. The way in which Tunisian parties and institutions will deal with the many tests that democratization will inevitably bring will certainly influence the outcome of revolutionary changes across the region. Pitfalls are everywhere, but Tunisian parties do not contemplate failure as an option. Their ability to overcome their partisan objectives to strengthen the process of democratization will be crucial in securing that a return to dictatorship does not materialize.

Dr. Francesco Cavatorta is senior lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland. He lectures on the politics of the Middle East. He has written numerous peer-reviewed articles. He is also the author of The International Dimension of the Failed Algerian Transition published in 2009 by Manchester University Press and the co-author of Civil Society and Democratization published by Routledge in 2010. He is currently working on a project examining Ennahda.

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