I’ve been fairly pessimistic lately, especially in regards to the low voter registration rates. The apparent lack of voter enthusiasm for the first free elections in Tunisia’s history has been disappointing at best and alarming at worst. In particular, the enthusiasm expressed by young Tunisians as they led the uprising against Ben Ali seems to have dissipated, replaced by a profound malaise. Tunisia’s political parties need to get back the activists who brought about the uprising and start addressing the real issues Tunisians care about.
The Western media called it the Facebook revolution, while it didn’t exactly fit, there is no doubt that Tunisians, especially the young, use Facebook as major source for information, sharing political thoughts, and these days, expressing their frustrations over the transition to democracy.
The reasons for this frustration is entirely justifiable. The transitional, non-elected government is headed by an octegenarian hold-over from the Bourguiba era and little has been done to reform state institutions. In addition, besides the trial of Ben Ali, prosecutors have been slow to prosecute other figures in Ben Ali’s entourage. The release on Thursday of the former transportation minister, Aberrahim Zouari, who had been charge with corruption during his long government career, has caused outrage among online activists.
Activists see this as yet another insult to the revolution, proving that the state is unable to reform the institutions so closely associated with the corruption of the former regime.
In many activist’s eyes, cases like these, and ongoing charges of police brutality, are the reason that they cannot get behind political parties. However, parties that have raised these issues have been branded as looking too closely at the past, and not worrying about the number one issue for Tunisians, the economy. This has created a situation where activists have been disillusioned with the establishment, and ordinary Tunisians are disillusioned with both the activists and the politicians.
And we wonder why voter registration is so low?
The reality is that the unelected, caretaker government has neither the legitimacy nor the support to properly address the crimes of the past while simultaneously preparing for the October 23 elections, let alone keep the moribund economy afloat. They have decided to concentrate on the elections and keeping a modicum of order until they can pass the baton of governance to the Constituent Assembly.
In the mean time, the major political parties in Tunisia have been fighting over campaign finance laws and whether or not the Ennahdha co-founder, Abdelfattah Mouru, should be allowed to have a show on a local television station during Ramadan. These issues are no doubt important for the politicos, but they are alienating voters and they are wasting the energy of the millions of young Tunisians who could change everything.
So how do you motivate young Tunisians? One way would be for a coalition of political parties to back a truth and reconciliation commission that would be established by the Constituent Assembly. The commission would act independently of the government and the legal system and be headed by internationally recognized jurists. It would prosecute crimes against former regime officials while setting the terms for minor officials to regain trust among ordinary Tunisians. It would also need to advise the government on reforming both the Justice and Interior ministries, which have yet to regain the trust of the population.
This idea is not new, many NGOs have called for this, but it has not been broadly endorsed by the leading political parties. A multi-party endorsement of a strong and independent commission could serve as a catalyst for Tunisians who think that their revolution was stolen. It would also show that Tunisian parties could agree on some fundamental principles for governance and accountability that ordinary Tunisians think are lacking from the entire political establishment. Agreement on a truth commission prior to the elections would also allow parties to pivot their campaigns back to addressing the economic needs of the country.
If there is one lesson from the lackluster results of the voter registration campaign, Tunisian politicians must do something to get ordinary, young Tunisians into political life. There is political space for this to happen, but someone must act soon.