I’ll be writing a few brief articles this week on key issues to look for in advance of this Sunday’s election.
One of the keys to look for on Sunday will be turnout, not just in total numbers of voters, but by geographical distribution, age, and gender. On everyone’s mind is the weak showing during the voter registration drive, in which only 55 percent of Tunisians registered. As the Project on Middle East Democracy reports:
When voting registration opened on July 11, registration turnout was initially disappointing due to technical problems with the online registration system and more importantly, because of poor voter education on the system and procedures. Although registration was extended until August 14, only 55 percent of eligible voters registered during this period, most likely due to confusion over the process.
Indeed, days after the ISIE extended the date of the election to encourage more people to register it also announced that anyone with a national ID card was eligible to vote, causing some uncertainty over whether registration was even necessary.
It is against this backdrop of potential voter apathy that worries many people. A poor showing could de-legitimize the Constituent Assembly’s work, while a high turnout would send a strong message to Tunisia’s new leaders that they will have to respond to the needs of their constituents. The stakes are high.
To adress these concerns, the elections authority (ISIE) has undertaken a massive campaign to prepare Tunisians for the vote. In addition to a nationwide print, billboard, and television campaign, ISIE has also sent text messages to every mobile phone in the country. A hotline has been set up for citizens to ask questions and to respond to calls about potential irregularities.
The campaign has been careful to use Tunisian Arabic, instead of classical Arabic – the official language of the government, to communicate more broadly. They have ensured that ballots can be filled out by illiterate Tunisians through the use of symbols, and have offered and advertised their services for the disabled.
Non-profit groups have also formed to ensure that Tunisians understand the elections and can access their polling place. The United Nations Development Program recently released a music video (see above) featuring famous Tunisian musicians to encourage voting. Public transportation will remain open on Sunday, usually a holiday here in Tunisia.
In my estimate, a turnout of less than 60 percent would be a big disappointment for the country. Less than 50 percent could lead to some major problems concerning the legitimacy of the elections. On the other hand, a turnout of over 70 percent, with wide age, gender and geographical distribution would send the strongest symbol yet that Tunisians will stand for their rights and hold their government to account.