On one of the busiest intersections of Tunisia’s coastal city of Monastir stands a prominent building draped in red-and-white banners urging citizens to vote. Miniature Tunisian flags hang over the pillared entrance. Like similar buildings all over the country, the structure has been converted from a political party hub of the former dictator to a regional election-information center. The hive of activity inside during the run-up to Tunisia’s October parliamentary election and the coming presidential vote this month represents the kind of civic engagement that might get Tunisians through the rough spots in the next stage of its democratic emergence.
The Tunisian Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) and regional centers such as the one in Monastir emerged from Tunisia’s national dialogue process that successfully cemented agreement among the country’s main political parties on a constitution and related democratic processes. The authority is tasked with every aspect of election procedures, including registering and educating voters, registering candidates, managing campaign policies, and training thousands of volunteers and staff to manage polling centers on election day. With the purpose of educating citizens about democracy and ensuring their access to the process, the centers have become vital in upholding a commitment to transparency, participation and public consultation.
Tunisia’s parliamentary elections last month were declared largely successful and marked an end to the transitional period of the Arab Spring and a deepening of the country’s democratic processes.
Political party delegations and Tunisian observers monitored adherence to strict electoral procedures. Within two hours after polling stations closed nationwide, the two major political parties, the moderate Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nida Tounes, released official statements accepting the results and declaring the process free and fair. It was a defining moment for Tunisian political leaders, who had vowed a commitment to the democratic process and the decisions of the Tunisian people.
With preliminary results released just three days after the election, Nida Tounes secured 85 seats compared with Ennahda’s 67, and multiple smaller parties captured the remainder of the parliament’s 217 seats. Despite a severe drop in overall voter turnout, from 62 percent in 2011 to 52 percent this time, and an alarmingly low showing among youth, the process was deemed free and fair by domestic and international observers alike.
The next stage will involve jockeying for a coalition government, since no party won a majority of seats, and that process will await the results of presidential balloting scheduled for Nov. 23.
Personal liberties vs. personal responsibility
To understand the significance of this moment in Tunisia’s history, it is important to measure the commitment to service evidenced in the execution of these elections compared with the early days of the revolution. In the immediate aftermath of the largely peaceful toppling of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many Tunisians focused mostly on their newfound personal liberties and their individual wants and needs.
It was a culture of protest, with young people demonstrating over every issue on which they didn’t fully agree, and even exercising their newfound freedoms in the most basic ways, like disobeying traffic laws when driving. Newspapers and radio and television stations, too, proliferated without any particular commitment to honest and open reporting and public service.
The latest parliamentary elections marked a dramatic shift to what appears to be a much clearer understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. While some disillusioned youth stayed away from the ballot box, the signs of civic engagement were evident in the youthful faces of polling center staff and the domestic observers, who all devoted nearly 24 hours straight to ensuring a successful election. It was apparent in the throngs of young volunteers welcoming visitors at the regional election-information centers and those participating in the final political party rallies.
At one polling location in Monastir, the head of the stations spent nearly a full minute scrutinizing each of the nearly 400 ballots cast throughout the day, confirming each in consultation with four other young workers and two equally youthful political party delegates. They were deliberative and clearly dedicated to validating every single legitimate vote.
Such centers now exist in every governorate in Tunisia, transforming the historical legacy of these spaces and representing the state’s commitment to its citizens in a democracy.
Certainly challenges remain for the newly forming coalition government that will be led by Nida Tounes, including the need to re-engage marginalized youth, implement sweeping economic and security reforms, and tackle rising unemployment. The transparent, participatory and publicly consultative structures created through the election authority’s regional centers will be vital to ensuring this democratic foundation does not falter in the difficult years ahead.
Joyce Kasee is a program officer at USIP. She observed the parliamentary election in Tunisia as part of a delegation organized by the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.