I have written previously about the lackluster results of the Tunisian voter registration campaign. Despite the election authorities’ redoubling of their efforts in print, radio and television and desperate calls from Tunisian activists, the total number of voters registered totaled only 1.2 million out of over 7 million as of this Saturday, prompting elections authorities to prolong the registration period for an additional 12 days. (as of August 2, 2 million Tunisians have registered, about 25 percent) A low rate of voter registration has potentially devastating consequences for the elections and the transition in Tunisia.
Why Tunisians aren’t registering?
Several theories exist about why Tunisians are avoiding registering. While some have questioned the campaign tactics of the elections authority and the ignorance of Tunisians about the process, most have acknowledged that despite some initial delays the campaign to get voters registered has been well organized. On a recent trip outside of Tunis the print and radio ads were omnipresent, suggesting that the awareness campaign has not just been active in the capital.
One of the most common theories is that Tunisians tend to procrastinate and that it’s only natural for them to wait until the last minute to register. Given the feeble rate of registrations up to this date, this would create an extremely chaotic situation in the final hours of voter registration.
Another theory is that Tunisians are skeptical about the electoral authorities commitment to free and fair elections. Aljazeera’s Yasmine Ryan highlighted some of these fears in a recent report that showed the lackluster commitment of Tunisians consular officials in Paris to the voter registration process. This corresponds to what many Tunisians here in Tunis have expressed, that the process is flawed and that the elections will be stolen no matter what.
Yet another hypothesis is that Tunisians are adamantly against the holding of a constituent assembly, preferring instead a presidential and parliamentary elections. This theory, recently expressed in a controversial opinion piece on the Tunisian website BusinessNews Tunisia, posits that a constituent assembly will continue to leave the country mired in a transitional period, further aggravating the economic crisis and creating further rifts between Tunisians.
Could feeble registration derail the transition?
The truth is that the poor voter registration numbers are likely a combination of all of these theories. Despite the massive media campaign, Tunisians have no first-hand experience with free elections and may be confused about the necessity to register. The fear that the revolution will be (or already has been) stolen is commonly heard among Tunisians of all political stripes. Others are simply tired of politics and think that elections are another way that Tunisians will be divided against each other.
The consequences of Tunisian inaction have the potential to be the biggest setback yet in their transition to democracy. If a majority of Tunisians abstain from voting (or are prevented from voting because they are not properly registered), this will play into the hands of whichever party does not do well in the elections. The winning parties will be de-legitimized and the constituent assembly will likely face similar problems to those faced by the High Commission (Haute Instance) for the transition – which has been racked in recent weeks by dissensions, most notably from the popular Islamist party, Ennahdha.
Alternatively, a feeble registration rate could make politicians reconsider the elections altogether, either transforming them into proper presidential/elections or into a referendum. However, officials would still be faced with the problem of registering more voters.
The irony of the situation is that even the staunchest critics of the government recognize that voter registration is the key to beginning the true transition. Activists from all sides are dumbfounded by the inaction of their compatriots, who had previously expressed great enthusiasm for voting.
While the electoral commission has bought itself more time, registering 5 million Tunisians in the next 12 days will be extremely difficult, and a poor result could further destabilize the government. While the authorities will likely add electors to the list from the database of national identity cards, this has its drawbacks as well, with a greater risk of fraud (voter registration confirms the place of residence) and more chaos on voting day.
The situation today is both surprising and disturbing, especially given reports that of those registered, only 20 percent are women. The January 14 toppling of Ben Ali and the subsequent transition toward free elections (the first ever in Tunisia) represented a re-writing of the Tunisian social contract – the agreement between the government and the governed – one that would be based on participation and accountability.