This week I’m addressing some of the keys to success for the October 23 elections in Tunisia. See also, Tunisians get ready to rock the vote.
This Sunday I will witness Tunisian elections for the second time. What a change 12 years make! In 1999 Ben Ali and the RCD “rocked the vote” with one of the most lopsided election of his very lopsided presidency; officially, he garnered 99.45 percent of the vote with 95 percent turnout. It is certainly strange how 12 years later every Tunisian I meet seems to be voting for the first time.
Sunday’s elections will be the first time Tunisians will cast there ballots in free and fair elections. But what leads us to believe they will be fair? Many Tunisians are dubious about the outcome, wondering whether former RCDists, the U.S., France, the West, or the Gulf have predetermined the results.
To dissect this, let’s look at the facts:
As I write, elections observers are gathering steps away from me . International and national observers are learning about the processes to follow and the rules of observation from the Tunisian Elections Authority, ISIE. All of the proceedings are broadcast online for anyone around the world – or the country to observe. This follows an effort by the ISIE to completely reconstruct the electoral lists, which were completely unreliable under the former regime. Despite setbacks in the process, ISIE will proceed with voting by national identity cards, which are mandatory for Tunisians.
Following the registration drive, ISIE began the process of registering parties and ensuring that ballots correctly indicated the party lists for each district. They also began recruiting and training international and national elections observers. Observers from Arab countries, the European Union, Canada and the U.S. will be present. ISIE also sensitized the population to the observation missions and informed citizens of their roles in reporting any malfeasance. This work has been aided by numerous civil society organizations, such as Atide, which has worked with ISIE to coordinate messages about the importance of transparency in the electoral process. Other organizations are also educating voters about their rights, such as Nschoof, or I see in Tunisian.
ISIE and other organizations have undertaken a massive media campaign to ensure voters are aware of the electoral process. This has included text messaging to all mobile phone users and direct lines to ISIE staff. Voters can also ask questions on ISIE’s Facebook and Twitter feed.
Despite these efforts, Tunisians are anything but naive about electoral “irregularities.” Many think that the outcome has been predetermined. Press coverage of Ennahdha’s contacts with officials from the United States has led many to believe that the U.S. will back an Ennahdha government and may have even entered into a secret deal. The U.S. has officially maintained its neutrality and has met with many party leaders. Other theories suggest that Ennahdha will be allowed to receive a certain percentage of the vote, no higher, no lower than a certain mark. This would avoid a situation like that which occurred in Algeria in 1992 when the Islamist party was on its way to a landslide victory before the military intervened.
Tunisia’s history, and that of its neighbors, is a key reason for those who doubt the fairness of the coming elections. Another aspect is the similarity of so many of the parties messages. One of the most common complaints is that all of the parties have the same platform, and they all “talk like politicians.” With the exception of Ennahdha, no party has been able to reach ordinary Tunisians. This disconnect leads to alienation from voters, and subsequently to theories that the whole game is rigged. A similar phenomenon can be seen in many Western democracies.
While the evidence points to clean elections, perceptions are as important as actions. Despite some reservations about the political games being played, most Tunisians I have spoken to on the subject are happy to cast their first free ballots.