Tunisia Moves towards Fair Elections

by Jais Mehaji, Arab Spring Series // Published June 13, 2011

As the first Arab country to abolish slavery in 1847, the first to adopt a constitution in 1861, and the first to grant women extensive rights unseen in the region in 1956, Tunisia has often been the most reformist country of the region: politically and socially. It has demonstrated this role as the harbinger of the 2011 Arab Spring movement, which began last winter in Tunisia. Protests in the country were triggered by the decision of Mohammed Bouazizi, a young fruit vendor who set himself on fire to protest his government. His injuries and eventual death became a symbol for the revolution, bringing unprecedented numbers of Tunisians to the streets, ultimately leading to the overthrow of long-time president Ben Ali – and established a model for other nations such as Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and others.

Progress toward real democracy isn’t simple however. This week, the Tunisian interim government agreed to postpone the date for electing the state’s constituent assembly from July 24th to October 23rd. According to interim leader Foued Mebazaa, the elections will follow the establishment of a distinctive electoral system that will reflect the authenticity of the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, as well as honor the memory of those who struggled to overthrow Ben Ali’s decades-long tyranny. Discussions revolving around the delay of elections have emerged as a result of the recently legalized parties’ concerns that they need more time to prepare and organize the vote. This concern is particularly well-founded in light of the fact that Ben Ali’s PSD party’s monopoly for decades meant that any form of opposition organization was severely dilapidated.

In October, Tunisians will vote for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, which would allow Tunisia to embark upon free, transparent legislative and presidential elections. Skeptics, however, feel that delaying elections for too long could derail the revolution and put an end to Tunisia’s fledgling experience with democracy. Whether the new assembly chooses a presidential or parliamentary system, or whether the new electoral system will reflect a proportional representation, will have important implications for the country’s democratic trajectory and political landscape.

With the legalization and registration of more than 80 new parties, the possibility of a parliamentary system along the lines of a proportional representation (PR) system could credibly pave the way for a more democratic and pluralistic polity. Due to the blossoming of political parties, only a PR system would encourage political compromise along with full representation of the nation’s diversity. Giving Tunisians the chance to award seats in proportion to their votes would be more representative and will avoid neglecting the various political units that played a role in the January revolution. A PR system would truly represent voters, making the votes correspond on leading issues with the real wishes of the voters – issues of paramount importance such as whether to adopt the principle of laïcité (separation of state and religion), protect civil liberties, as well as reflecting the aspirations of the small Berber communities. Further, such a system would favor consensus-seeking, centrist candidates- thus diminishing the chances Islamist parties will feel excluded from the political arena and radicalize. Most importantly, espousing a PR system would give the votes of Tunisians real meaning, reflecting the majority’s will, thus preserving the essence of the Jasmine Revolution.

Another recent development in the Tunisian electoral system discourse is the gender parity law, which, coupled with a PR system, would project Tunisia as a beacon for democracy in the Arab world, and even a model for the industrialized, democratic West. You can read more about the parity law in Wael Abdel-Hamid’s blogpost here. All this amounts to change that anyone committed to democratic ideals of equality should embrace. Tunisia is at a crossroads, and the electoral system it chooses to adopt may suggest a critical juncture that will determine its democratic trajectory for years to come, as well as set a regional precedent that may continue nurturing the Arab Spring in the right direction.