Votes cast in landmark poll in Tunisia

24 October 2011

Tunisia’s first free elections are likely to result in a coalition of parties forming a government, but it will take time to usher in a new era of democracy

As the birthplace of the Arab uprisings, the elections in Tunisia on 23 October carried with them not only the hope of a democratic future, but also a huge burden of expectation.

They were the first free and fair elections to be held since former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on 14 January and so set a precedent for the rest of the region. Ben Ali’s departure was the first dramatic change in Tunisia’s largely peaceful Jasmine Revolution, but the elections are arguably the most important.

Voters headed to the polls to elect a 217-seat assembly that will draft a new constitution and appoint an interim government. Written in 1959, the original constitution was skewed heavily in favour of the president. The composition of the new assembly will have major implications for the shape of Tunis’ political future.

Participation in the elections was high, with many Tunisians still queuing at 7pm when polling stations were due to close. Of the 4.1 million people registered to vote, more than 90 per cent turned out. No figures are available for the 3.1 million voters who were unregistered.

Coalition government

Early results show the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, is on track to win the most votes. Its main rival, the secular PDP party, admitted defeat. With no single party securing a majority, a coalition government is the most likely outcome.

“This will result in a coalition of different parties, but a big win for Ennahda will give its policies and influence in drafting the constitution more weight and, therefore, religion is likely to play a larger role in politics than it did under the old regime,” says Ayesha Sabavala, economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Although the elections were a turning point in Tunisian history, some citizens did not vote because of the presence of parties comprising members of Ben Ali’s former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party. At the peak of February’s Jasmine Revolution, the interim government suspended all meetings of the RCD and ordered its party offices and meeting places to be closed down ahead of a decision to dissolve the party entirely.

Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger who was nominated for the Nobel peace prize this year for her long-standing criticism of Ben Ali’s regime, was among those who chose to boycott the election. “I did not vote because there were at least 50 parties reconstituted from the RCD taking part in the elections and by accepting to compete against them, the other political parties gave them legitimacy,” says Ben Mhenni. “We should have started by suing people who were accomplices [of] the old regime and its crimes.”

Banning most members of the 2 million-strong RCD has proven a double-edged sword. While it removed corrupt individuals from power, it also cut off many technocrats who had the skills Tunisia needs to drive its economy forward. Many people were forced to join the RCD in order to operate legitimate businesses.

“There has been a divide between the Tunisian public and the interim government on the purging of senior members associated with the old regime,” says Sabavala.

However, steps were taken to assuage public fear. A list was published before the elections of those members associated with the old regime who were not allowed to participate in the election process.

Despite the short-term euphoria of the elections, most Tunisians remain concerned about the key issues of unemployment and the economy, which was severely affected by the unrest. With 700,000 unemployed Tunisians and about 70,000 new graduates coming into the market each year, unemployment, which was a major trigger of the Jasmine Revolution, will worsen if economic growth does not pick up.

“While the interim government will focus on drafting a new constitution, there must be more aggressive attempts to deal with the economic problems of high unemployment and unequal distribution of wealth,” Sabavala says.

The economy is not the only issue. On the political side, the parties that gain seats in the assembly will need to agree on controversial issues such as the role of religion in state and the Personal Status Code, a series of laws aiming for equality for women. While Ennahda has taken a moderate stance during the run-up to the elections, many are concerned that it may change if it wins power, restricting the rights of women and imposing sharia law.

Renewed hope for Tunisians

With these issues, there is the possibility of a breakdown in political consensus and deterioration in security. In the short-term, the elections usher in a new era of hope for Tunisians. But the true results of these elections will not be seen for some time.

A coalition of parties in government will prevent power from being concentrated in the hands of the few, as was the case in the old regime, but may also delay decision-making and reduce government effectiveness. Whether the elections will bring a true democratic government remains unclear.

“Personally, I am not very optimistic. I believe that we cannot start something new while relying on [previous] people and institutions,” says Ben Mhenni.

Change will not be immediate. The new assembly has a year to complete the constitution, choose whether it should be put to a referendum and appoint an interim government. A permanent government will only be elected once the constitution is approved, meaning an uncertain political landscape in the foreseeable future is the only thing that is definite.

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