Tunisia’s Transition Triumphs – but Fears for its Democratic Future Remain

Tunisia’s second democratic elections on Sunday marked a milestone in the country’s democratic transition, with voters turning out en masse to elect a new 5-year Parliament. The elections were widely applauded as a success by international observers and world leaders, and prove the country’s ability to guarantee a key pillar of democracy – peaceful change of power based on free expression through the ballot box. However, there have been complaints of electoral violations around the country and in the constituencies outside. Furthermore, questions remain around the country’s democratic future, with the party currently leading in the results, Nidaa Tounes, accused of being the reincarnation of the old regime, causing widespread fears of a step backwards for the country’s fragile democratic culture.

The elections unfolded over three days in the six constituencies outside Tunisia, and on a single day inside Tunisia, with 61.8% of the 5.2 million registered voters turning out – a rate which exceeded even the high turnout rate (51%) in the historic first elections in 2011. The elections were widely hailed as free and fair by international observers including the European Union delegation and the Carter Center. Over 600 international observers were present around the country, in addition to 10,000 observers from civil society and parties deployed at the 10,569 polling stations in Tunisia and 405 stations overseas. Voting was said to be largely peaceful and orderly, building on the lessons learned and expertise gained from the 2011 elections.

However, widespread problems were experienced in the six overseas constituencies, particularly Italy, France and the UK. Voters who had received confirmation of their registration from the Independent High Commission for the Elections (ISIE) turned up to vote only to be told by officials that their names could not be found on registration lists. Some were told they were registered to vote in another city hundreds of kilometres away or even inside Tunisia. These problems resulted in a very low voter participation rate in these constituencies, with just 29% of registered voters abroad casting their vote, as low as 14% in Italy.[1] There were also reports of violations by candidates and parties continuing to campaign outside polling stations.

Results are slowly being announced by ISIE, with final complete results expected on Thursday 30th October. At the time of writing, official results had been released for only a third of constituencies.[2] Estimates suggest Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) Party is leading with between 70 and 85 seats out of 217 in the assembly followed by Ennahdha (Renaissance) Party with between 65 and 75 seats.

The two parties took by far the largest share of votes, a combined 60-80% in most constituencies. Preliminary results show a large gap between them and the next biggest parties in the Parliament – the centre-right UPL (Patriotic Free Union) Party, the centre-right Afek Tounes (Horizons Tunisia) Party, the far-left Front Populaire (Popular Front) and the centre-left CPR (Congress for the Republic) Party.

A surprise blow was dealt to Ettakattol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties) Party, led by Mustapha Ben Jaafar, President of the Constituent Assembly. Its share of the vote is estimated to have plummeted from 7% in the 2011 elections to an estimated 2%. The Tayyar Mahabba (Current of Love) Party also saw its share of the vote decimated, going from the third biggest party in 2011 with 6.74% of the vote to less than 1% average for constituencies announced so far.

The big question occupying public debate is who will be part of the new government. Nidaa Tounes will need to form a coalition as its share of the seats in parliament will not give it enough votes on its own to get the absolute majority (109 votes) required to approve a new government under the Constitution. However, a coalition between Nidaa and Ennahdha is unlikely – Ennahdha and most of its supporters see Nidaa as the reincarnation of the old regime, with much of its leadership drawn from the ranks of former ministers and RCD (former ruling party) officials under Ben Ali. Indeed, there has been widespread dismay on Tunisian social media networks at the return of old regime figures such as Abir Moussa, former General Secretary of the dissolved RCD, who has just been elected a member of the new parliament. On the other hand, Nidaa and many of its supporters see Ennahdha as hostile to their social vision and opposed to their values. Any coalition between the two would cause widespread discomfort among their support bases.

Negotiations are said to be already underway between parties as to the composition of the new government. However, the government is likely not to be approved before February given the focus on presidential elections (coming up in less than one month) and the fact that the Constitution requires that the new prime minister be appointed by the elected president. This means a new government and prime minister will not be approved until after final presidential results are announced in January.

Tunisia remains a beacon of light and the sole successful example of peaceful democratic change in the Arab Spring countries. The country has adopted a new Constitution, widely hailed as the most progressive in the Arab world, with a focus on rights and liberties, separation of powers, protection for judicial independence and decentralisation. The Constitution gives wide powers to the new elected parliament as the representative body of the people. It will have the power to enact ordinary and organic laws, monitor government spending and scrutinise government budgets, undertake investigations and withdraw confidence from the government or the President.

Facts and Figures

  • 5.2 million – registered voters
  • 1,327 lists ran
  • 9,000 candidates
  • 33 constituencies (27 inside Tunisia, 6 outside)
  • 217 seats in the new Parliament
  • 10,974 polling stations inside and outside Tunisia
  • 50.5% of Tunisia’s registered voters are women
  • 47% of candidates are women
  • 12% of heads of lists are women

[1]A breakdown of voter turnout by constituency is available at http://www.isie.tn/documents/taux-participation-en-tunisie.pdf

[2]See http://www.isie.tn/index.php/fr/resultats-partielles-pour-les-elections-legislatives.html

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *