Countdown to default – Tunisian style

Ineffective outreach strategies left partisans poised to start this week locked in a bitter and messy fight to mobilize voters to take action. Over the weekend, they focused their attention on a two stage proposal. Their goal was to make it more attractive to voters. By Monday afternoon, they thought they were close, the President even offered a televised eappeal on Monday to reach out to the recalcitrant. But by Tuesday, it was unclear whether they could meet the August 2 deadline, with a potential catastrophic impact on all parties for the upcoming elections.

The August 2 deadline is not the U.S. debt ceiling, nor is the President Obama, but the impact could be as far reaching as a financial collapse. While the debt ceiling debate in the U.S. is all important in the American news cycle this week, Tunisians face the same August 2 deadline to legitimize their revolution. In exactly 8 days voter registration closes for Tunisian voters to vote in their first free and fair elections.

Despite a massive publicity campaign, voter registration rates have come in as a trickle, rather than a flood. As of this morning, less than 900,000 Tunisians were registered, out of an estimated 7 million eligible voters.

Despite registration booths staying open over the entire holiday weekend and a call over the weekend for Tunisian bloggers to mobilize their followers, so far less than 15 percent of voters have registered.

The impact of a weak voter registration could have far reaching implications for the political transition in Tunisia, not only potentially deligitimizing the elections, but also disenfranchizing scores of potential voters come October 23 when Tunisians go to the polls.

Over the next 8 days I will be following this story closely.

And for all my Tunisian friends: remember, it’s not just about registering yourself, take your family, friends, and everyone you know to the municipal polling station.

[Edit: After I posted this, I noticed Kacem4Change’s post on the Tunisian blogging effort. It’s a good short summary of the outreach efforts by engaged Tunisians, keeping the revolution alive.

Parties fail to take advantage of political opening

The violence and disruptions of this past weekend, coupled with the most recent address by the Tunisian prime minister, offered an opportunity for political parties to come forward and reach out to voters. By all measures, they are failing the test.

As I noted earlier this week, Prime Minister Essebsi’s speech prompted all of the major political parties in Tunisia to take action. Some condemned his speech (Ennahdha), others lauded it (PDP, Akef). In the end, though, what could have been an opening, has turned into more infighting, and less attention to reaching out to the average Tunisian voter.

Ennahdha took the opportunity to fight back against the Prime Minister, insisting that the government had defiled religious establishments by looking for protesters within mosques in Menzel Bourguiba and Tunis. This played to their base, but it also showed that they were not ready to focus attention exclusively on the next two months of political campaigning and elections.

On the other hand, the centrist parties quickly adopted the narrative of the Prime Minister to condemn violence (which they were quick to subtly blame on religious extremists, and not elements close to the former regime). However, after an almost unanimous vote in the transitional council on political party organizations and campaign finance, the PDP quickly backed away from the vote and accused the chairman of the council of playing political games. This was seen as a cynical move to protect their corporate donations. Adding insult to injury, they walked away, walked back, and then insisted that the law is ok, but just needs to be amended.

The centrist parties organized a rally in central Tunis today, ostensibly against violence, that was mostly an opportunity to distinguish themselves from Ennahdha. The event was poorly attended (I guessed around 500, though other sources placed the turnout at about 3,000), given the number of parties represented.

I think that it is highly probably that this kind of game playing from all sides is one of the biggest reasons for the apathy for voter registration. As of today, less than 400,000 Tunisians have registered to vote out of 7 million voters. They have until August 2 to complete the process in order to vote in this fall’s elections. Certainly there are other reasons for the poor turnout, but the actions of the political parties this week have not helped earn the trust of Tunisian voters.

Decried by activists, Tunisian PM’s speech spurs parties to action

I wrote yesterday about the continuing disorder and violence in Tunisia over the weekend, provoked by activists attempting to reoccupy the Kasbah on Friday. The Tunisian Prime Minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi, responded to this violence in a speech on Monday that upset activists and placed the blame squarely on extremist political parties.

Essebsi had three goals in his speech, by most accounts he has succeeded on two of them, and the third is uncertain.

First, Essebsi wanted to create a cleavage between those who are mostly concerned with preserving the goals of the revolution and those that want to move on to the elections and getting the country back to work. Polls show that the vast majority of Tunisians are glad to have overthrown the regime, but they want to move on and the top priority should be jobs, security, and the economy. However, many activists have been upset at the slow pace of reforms, in particular in the security apparatus and over the weekend, attacks on journalists. Apart from the twittersphere, Essebsi wins this point easily with the masses.

Second, he wanted to bring legitimate political parties back to the table at the transitional commission (la Haute Instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution) in order to set the stage for the political campaigns and the elections. In tandem, he tried to exclude political parties that disrupt the process and call into question the legitimacy of the commission’s work. The latter point was aimed at Ennahda and other political parties who had recently withdrawn from the commission in an attempt to increase their representation.

The response today has been swift from all sides. Ennahda immediately held a press conference in which they lined up with the PM’s ideas about avoiding violence at all costs and making sure that Tunisia stayed on track for a peaceful and fair election. The main trade union (UGTT) also voiced its support for unity and non-violence. Meanwhile, the centrist party Afek Tunis smelled blood and subtly called out Ennahda and the far left parties for their lack of respect for the transitional commission and the trade unions and aligned parties for the continued sit-ins in the country.

Essebsi raised the stakes for those parties who could benefit by saying that on one hand they wanted the transition to go well, but on the other did not want to participate in the agreed upon forum in which to participate. With over 60 percent of Tunisians not having made up their minds on who to vote, this is another win for Essebsi among all except the partisans.

Finally, he wanted to prepare voters for a potentially tumultuous run-up to the October 23 elections by essentially telling them to stay the course, ignore the extremists, and let the police do their work. The question is how long Tunisians will accept the  economic and security situation.

The speech was well-timed and spoke over the cacophony of the political chattering classes. For the time being, he seems to have reached the Tunisian people and garnered support for the transitional process at its most needed time, and he has brought the political parties with him. The risk, as I mentioned yesterday, is that if at some point there is a true split between the government and centrist parties on one side, and Ennahda and perhaps the far left on the other, there could be an added destabilization of the political process leading to further unrest in the country. Furthermore, while his call for calm has been accepted by all sides, one minor event could set things back considerably. Only time will tell.

New poll reveals upcoming electoral dangers

Over the last few weeks, I’ve raised the issue of the importance of political polling as we approach the October 23 elections. A new poll released this week raises more questions about the precarious political situation in Tunisia and how voters will respond in this Fall’s ballot. It also avoids key questions that would help us understand how the elections might turn and how political parties can reach out to voters.

Voter registration campaign from the independent elections committee

Key highlights

In an era of misinformation and lots of speculation, both in Tunisia and outside, the newIRI poll provides useful data on how Tunisians view their future (including their hopes and fears), the role of secularism/religion, and how Tunisians get their news. Particularly welcome is there publication of their methodology, which other polling firms here have declined to provide).

Overall, the poll showed widespread support for democracy, but their is an increasingly pessimistic attitude toward the future of the country and the political elite. A few points stand out:

  • Almost half (46%) of all Tunisians now believe their country is going in the wrong direction
  • Internal security and unemployment remain the critical issues for Tunisians
  • 43% believe that political parties are only interested in power
  • No individual or party received more than 7% support when Tunisians were asked their voting intentions
  • Only one party was identified by Tunisians when asked about their voting intentions (other responses identified party leaders)

The last two figures are key. Political parties are the key to the upcoming elections and probably the single most understood and undervalued element in the transition period in Tunisia. When voters go to the polls in October, they will be voting for their preferred parties, not individual candidates, within their voting district, a system called proportional list voting.

This proportional list system favors a multitude of parties gaining at least some seats. While it does not favor small parties, it doesn’t exclude them either. Parties with strong support will receive a proportional share, while those receiving fewer votes must meet a minimum threshold in order to gain a seat within each constituency.

With over 100 parties competing in the coming elections, even the most well-informed voter could be confused by the plethora of parties. And as I’ve written about previously this week, most parties identify themselves as centrist, meaning that their is very little differentiation among party platforms.

Consolidation is needed, but polls aren’t helping

Unless there is some serious consolidation among like minded parties, there is a great risk that the elections will be jeopardized by spreading votes too thinly across the many political parties, making the drafting of a new constitution and the day-to-day governance of the country nearly impossible.

Imagine a district with 10 seats where 10,000 votes are required in order to gain a seat. Then imagine that the current front runners, Ennahdha (Islamist) and PDP (center-left), each wins 2 seats. The remaining 6 seats will be given to the next closest parties receiving votes. If we use the current polling data, these seats could essentially be randomly assigned, as no other parties receive statistically significant support from Tunisian voters and there is no way to judge the political slant of the electorate (whether they are leaning right or left).

Under these circumstances, a party leader of a small party has an incentive to consolidate his base by joining forces with another smallish party. For those parties that are ideological, alliances should be fairly straightforward, unless there are big egos involved. Far left wing parties should work with other far left wing parties, etc.

However, most Tunisian parties are centrist. Under normal circumstances, these centrist parties would make some calculations for alliances based on support in various regions and by further differentiating based on ideology (i.e., center left parties join with center left parties, etc).

Unfortunately, once again, the polls fail us. We cannot find data that would point a party leader toward making a calculated choice. None of the polls I’ve examined point to regional variation across the country, nor do they look at how voters would like their elected leaders to solve their problems (ideology).

We simply do not know what side Tunisians fall on, left or right. This information gap makes alliance making extremely difficult and very risky for a political party.

As of now, most of these small parties are testing the waters with voters. They are reaching out to voters across the country and they are no doubt looking at enthusiasm for their positions (and their opponents) at rallies, on the newsstands, and online.

With three months to go before the election, the time to start making these alliances is now. Ramadan, which begins at the end of July, will make campaigning problematic until early September, at which point there will only be seven weeks to go before the election.

Perhaps, as this week’s poll points out, Tunisians are right, political parties are only looking out for their own interests. Or perhaps, they need more information from voters.

Also interesting about the IRI poll:

Their are several ambiguities in the poll. For example, while 54% of respondents approved of a secular government, 59% would like to see political parties that are moderately or strongly Islamist in the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, the percentage of Tunisians whose political opinions are influenced by religious leaders fell from 46% in March (the time of the previous survey), to 34% in May.

None of the public opinion polls conducted so far have included expatriate Tunisian voters, who will for the first time have the chance to vote from abroad.

Postscript: This is the second time I’ve looked closely at IRI data. Lest anyone think I’m only reading U.S. sponsored polls, I am not. However, with the exception Emhrod, no other polling firms have released their polling methodologies, that I know of. Polls by MediaScan, Sigma, and 3C have failed to publish methodologies and complete lists of questions. It’s possible the information I believe is lacking is in fact out there somewhere. If it is, please send it my way and I will happily revise.

Democracy promotion – Disliked at home and abroad

The Pew Research Center recently published new data on the decline of American support for democracy promotion (thanks to Democracy Digest for alerting to this data). According to the May 2011 poll, only 13 percent of Americans support democracy promotion efforts in contrast to almost one-third after 9/11.

The end of the RCD brought a political vacuum to Tunisian political parties

From Tunisia 2011

What is interesting from this data is the seeming convergence of American public opinion with skeptics here in the Arab world. More and more in the Tunisian press (and as the WSJ reports, in the Egyptian administration as well), critics are lashing out against the efforts of the Obama administration to promote democracy following the Arab Spring.

Why the skepticism?

From the Arab perspective, the root of these critiques is a skepticism of both American motives (not surprising), but also a skepticism that these kind of efforts can even work.

The recent trip of the Ennadha (the main Islamist party) spokesman Hamadi el-Jabali to Washington to meet with senior administration officials and members of Congress was seen as a tacit endorsement of the party in Tunisia.

While democracy promotion groups have been busy conducting relatively benign trainings on voter outreach, the mere mention of these high level meetings brings to mind the history of Western interference in Tunisia during the Ben Ali regime.

This idea of American king-making has long been associated with U.S. democracy promotion efforts, something that was certainly reinforced in the minds of both Arabs and in the U.S. through the failed democracy promotion efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does this mean for Tunisia?

The consequence of this mistrust of democracy promotion efforts is likely to be minimal in the U.S. – the amount of money spent is insignificant compared to, for example, air combat operations in Libya.

However, the skepticism could have important consequences in Tunisia (and other nascent Arab democracies) because internationally funded democracy promotion efforts generally benefit smaller parties – of which there are now over 100 in Tunisia.

While larger parties are often connected to international movements (such as labor, chambers of commerce, or religious groups), these small parties  are not well-organized or well-funded. The repression of the previous regime made sure that they are inexperienced at campaign management, outreach, and media relations – the exact things democracy promotion outfits like IRI and NDI target.

Skepticism toward foreign aid and intervention tends to be self-fulfilling. The less one is exposed to it, the more one is skeptical of its motives. This may prove to be the case for the American public as much as for the Tunisian electorate.