The real significance of Tunisia’s election

Islamists could win, but the number of Tunisians who decide to vote is even more important than who they vote for.

On October 23, Tunisian voters will elect members of a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution [AFP]

The view from the Tunisian city of Sousse is good. Voters are enthusiastically queuing up to cast their vote.

However, the importance of the poll in Tunisia is not which party wins the popular vote for the constituent assembly. The true significance will be whether Tunisia votes, and “which” Tunisia votes for which party or list.

Three questions must be addressed: Will Tunisians vote? What are Tunisians voting for? To whom are they giving their vote?

Most political observers and media pundits have turned the bulk of their attention to al-Nahda, a moderate Islamist party. Here in Tunis, the focus is on al-Nahda and many assume that they will win.

Islamists define all things political in the Arab world. This applies to extremist Islamism as well as to civic Islamism.

Indeed, October 24, 2011, the day after the election, will be a turning point in the history of Tunisia. The Islamists will resoundingly establish themselves as a key political player in the country’s democratic transition. Thus far Tunisia has been run by Francophile elites favouring secular politics. In this regard, Tunisia will be following in Turkey’s footsteps.

Those who are not versed in Tunisian politics should go and stand in the square opposite the Municipality of Tunis and just absorb the architecture of political Tunisia. This square has no analogue elsewhere in the Arab world.

With the municipality to one’s back, the Sadiki school – founded by reformer Khayr al-Din Pasha – symbolises not only Ottoman connections, but also a reformist agenda begun more than 150 years ago. To the right, stands the Aziza Othman hospital, named after a woman who cultivated the earliest forms of civic networks in Tunisia.

Political culture

Just opposite the Kasbah, the seat of government and the lush manicured trees shading the squares joining the prime minister’s office and the ministry of finance, the onlooker sees architectural syncretism at its best. Various shapes of domes and minarets – Tunisian and Ottoman – dot the skyline of Tunis, the country’s hub of political power. Some of my pro-democratisation students from the University of Exeter and I brainstormed on how to understand this perennial quest for synthesis in Tunisia.

It is this synthesis which will triumph. The embrace of the Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a mini-Champs Elysees with its open-air cafes, a refuge for all, including the unemployed, and the Medina, the Old City, hints at how Tunisia will vote.

Historic Tunisia poll opens

Tunisians champion syncretism, and this is really the crux of Tunisia’s “political culture”. They do not wish to ditch their Arab and Islamic heritage. Nor do they wish to detach from the brighter spots of reformist politics in their history. French and European inputs into the mix of their culture are now deep-rooted and appreciated.

The Independent Electoral Commission, headed by Kemal Jendoubi, did all it could to register the country’s seven million voters. Of these, only a bit less than five million have their names on the register to vote in the country’s 7,000 or so polling stations.

There is an element of voluntarism in any voting exercise. Not voting is an equal expression of the citizen’s democratic will. But this is a poll where the higher the voter turnout, the bigger the chances of success. During a visit to the Sousse branch of the Electoral Observatory, Dr Amor Boubakri, professor of law at the University of Sousse, is optimistic that more than 70 per cent of those registered will cast a vote.

Millions of circular red bumper stickers stating “ana qayyadtu” (I have registered) have been distributed to those who signed up to vote. Many still decorate walls and cars.

Dr Boubakri says that Tunisians have, in this past week, realised what is expected of them for making the Arab Spring’s first election a resounding success. For him, this is the most important election in the history of Tunisia. This election inaugurates democratic transition, pluralism, power-sharing, organised opposition and gender inclusiveness as never before.

When the polls close at the end of the day, voter turnout will be the most important figure to watch for. Obviously, it will be the key indicator of the level of public endorsement for this transition itinerary, begun by Khayr al-Din, a former Tunisian prime minister, in the 1850s.

It is the only majority that matters in this vote. Abstention or low voter turnout by the excluded and the people of the country’s south and the centre may not bode well for democratic transition. This silent majority, disenfranchised since independence in 1956, rebelled against the entire political system in 2011. Its absence may mean it is not ready to surrender the revolution to formal political processes. By contrast, high voter turnout would convey exactly the opposite meaning.

In some of Tunisia’s largest cities such as Tunis, Nabeul, Sfax and Sousse, the excluded living in the marginal suburbs seem to have made up their mind in favour of al-Nahda. It is in these cities where al-Nahda will pick up the majority of its seats, as well as experience resistance to its programme.

A splintered electorate

In the election, political parties will contest 217 seats for the constituent assembly in 33 districts within Tunisia. To this end, more than 1,400 lists have been created. Each list must have a candidate under the age of 30 to give higher representation to the country’s youth. The names on each list are also required to alternate between men and women. Unfortunately, however, gender parity has not been always practised: Many parties did not place female candidates at the top of their candidate lists.

Each party is using the elections to gauge its own public standing. This has splintered the electoral map, and to an extent weakened the pre-revolution parties. These parties may coalesce in a fashion that could give the constituent assembly a counterweight to al-Nahda.

After the election, the political map in Tunisia will change. New political strategies will be adopted by what may be called “centrist” parties. They are neither left nor right, and have adjusted their dogmas markedly since their creation.

Tunisians have not bonded sufficiently with their political leaders. Many do not know much about the goals of the nearly 100 parties contesting these elections.”

The huge number of independents in these elections splinters the electorate, possibly turning Tunisia into a “quasi-Italian” model of democracy that is prone to instability. Two political forces share the future of Tunisia’s transition. It is therefore fallacious to think that future is solely to be in the hands of al-Nahda. If the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties and the Progressive Democratic Party between them collect 25 to 30 per cent of the popular vote, then Tunisia’s transition will be solid and sustainable. These two parties have not coalesced, because they are led by two equally charismatic figures. But they might have no option but to form a coalition, possibly joined by the Ettajdid Party and its allies in the Modernist Democratic Pole coalition.

Mustafa Bin Jaafar is leader of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties. Like Ahmed Najib al-Chebbi, leader of the Progressive Democratic Party, Bin Jaafar is potentially a presidential hopeful. He may initially resist this urge, preferring to turn himself into a “mediator” in the constituent assembly. This role could be rewarded with al-Nahda’s endorsement of his presidency if Moncef Merzouki’s Congress Party for the Republic does not poll well. 

There are similar parties and blocs, namely the independents’ Democratic Alliance led by the charismatic Islamist leader, Abdelfattah Mouro, whose share of the vote will not be more than five per cent. To this may be added the Tunisia Workers’ Communist Party (POCT) of Hamma Hammami, whose share of the vote will probably not exceed four per cent.

Tunisians have not bonded sufficiently with their political leaders. Many do not know much about the goals of the nearly 100 parties contesting these elections. This may be another factor limiting voter turnout.

The result in the Tunis two district will be one indicator of how the parties perform. This district is known as the “iron district”, and others have dubbed it the “death district”. Six prominent candidates – Mouro, al-Chebbi, Ettajdid’s Ahmed Ibrahim, al-Nahda’s Su’ad Abderrahim, Ettakatol’s Khalil Ezzawiya, and well-known activist Radia Nasrawi – contest from this district. How Tunisians vote in this district will be a microcosm of the polity that will emerge after the elections.

Regardless of how people vote and for whom, the ink staining the fingers of tens of thousands of Tunisian voters visible everywhere will result in a modest re-writing of the rules of political game in Tunisia… and may be the writing on the wall for those resisting the rise of the age of citizenship.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), and the forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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