Archives: The Tunisian elections and the future of the Arab Spring

18 October 2011

By Grant Rumley

In less than a week, Tunisians will partake in an authentic, organically-grown election; and once again embark on the flagship journey of the Arab Spring. Already the campaign season in Tunisia, begun on October 1st, has seen widespread participation, with over 80 parties officially registered. The elections are set to appoint a 217-member Constituent Authority, which will be trusted with drafting a replacement to the 52 year old constitution. Yet the reverberations of this assembly will echo much further than just the borders of this North African country to emerging countries such as Egypt and Libya, as the focus of the Arab Spring turns to its newest democracy.

In many ways, the upcoming election won’t just be a barometer of the electoral process for the Arab Spring, but a harbinger for what observers and protesters alike can expect from the first elections in the region. October 23 in Tunisia will tell us a lot about the state of Arab democracy, the progress of the Arab Spring, and the future of the region; the three most notable points will be:

What should we expect from Islamist parties?

In Tunisia, the prominent Islamist party is Al Nahda, or, the Renaissance. Long seen as a comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nahda in fact has some distinct characteristics of its own. For one, the party has historically been slightly more progressive; the current leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has voiced support for women’s rights and marginalized the role of Sharia law in modern Tunisian society, he’s shown tendencies towards economic liberalism and given overtures to progressive ideas. For another, Nahda also has a history of working with other parties in Tunisia. According to a Financial Times article after the revolution, Ghannouchi pointed out that Nahda founded and coordinated the October 18 coalition in 2005, a coalition that was comprised of the Progressive Democratic Party, the Communist Workers Party, and other human rights parties.

Yet despite some of the dissimilarities between Nahda and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, there is still much to learn about other regional Islamist parties from how Nahda does in the elections. Nahda, like the Brotherhood, emerged from the revolution as the most dominant and well-organized political party in its country. It enjoys the most support, has the widest base, and proved capable of mobilizing more efficiently than any other political party. Yet for both Nahda and the Brotherhood, the increased political autonomy meant increased political competition, as both parties suffered dissent from internal and external voices. How the sudden prominence translates for Nahda in the coming elections will give Egyptian Brothers more confidence, or more grey hairs.

How can we verify the elections are actually free and fair?

The Tunisian model appears to be a hybrid for monitoring the Arab Spring elections. According to a BBC article, the elections will be primarily monitored by a Tunisian-based observer, the Independent Higher Authority for Elections. The head of the Authority, Kamel Jendoubi, has stressed that attention will be paid to not only the results and the turnout of the elections, but the amount of foreign funding and expenses of the campaigns, to “ensure quality between all candidates.” What this means, in actuality, is at any point highly unclear; will caps be put into place for campaign expenses? Will donations be limited? What will be the impact of wealthy Tunisians abroad donating to campaigns? These questions are likely to be revealed after the campaigns have finished.

The elections will also be monitored by two delegates from the EU and two American-based institutions, one of which being the Carter Center. This appears to be a compromise of two different opinions emerging after the Arab Spring, where on one side there are calls for strict outside monitoring to ensure international recognition, while on the other side there are calls for a more strict nationalist approach, with only internal monitoring to be done. Both bring equal fears of corruption and nepotism, and the Tunisian model appears to reconcile those fears by sourcing out its monitors.

What can we expect from voter turnout?

Again, the BBC is reporting that around 4 million Tunisians are registered to vote, which is around 55% of the total number of eligible voters in Tunisia. While there were some hiccups and delays due to expired ID cards, the sheer percentage of voters is a great sign for Tunisian democracy. The question that arises, however, is how that translates to countries with larger populations. In a country of 10 million, getting 55% of the eligible voters is a realistic possibility, in a country such as Egypt, with over 80 million people, getting that kind of turnout will be much more difficult.

Then there’s the question of the dispersed Tunisians. The Transitional Authority has made a concerted effort to allow those Tunisians living in other countries the right to vote, allotting 18 seats in the Constituent Assembly to Tunisians living in six overseas constituencies. Once again, this is something that is feasible with a smaller population, but how does this transmit to a country with a large population whose population was dispersed with a fractious civil war, like Libya? What kind of oversight is there for dispersed Tunisians? What qualifies a Tunisian abroad as being eligible to vote?

Clearly, the elections in Tunisia have a lot to show the Arab world. The models in which Tunisians reconcile internal and external monitors, how they include dispersed Tunisians, and how they incorporate progressive principles in the elections (half of the candidates on every party’s list must be women) will give other Arab Spring countries a framework to work by in constructing their own democracies. Should the elections prove relatively smooth and successful, the emerging Arab Spring countries could be tempted to follow the Tunisians once again into a brave, new, democratic world.