Tunisia: Elections amid fresh protests, confusion

October 22, 2011
Rally in Tunisia, October 16.

After being delayed by three months, the official campaign for Tunisia's constituent assembly began on October 1, paving the way for the October 23 elections.

More than 80 different parties, many formed or legalised since the overthrow of dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, and about 1500 different lists vyed for a place in the 218-member assembly.

The assembly was elected from across 33 electorates in Tunisia, and among the diaspora in France, Canada and across the world, using a system of proportional representation. However, the Canadian government baulked at allowing Tunisians in Canada to elect representatives to the assembly, claiming it was at odds with Canada's "sovereignty" to allow a foreign voting district.

The Tunisian and Canadian governments reached an agreement to allow the elections to go ahead as planned on October 14, said Bochra Manai, secretary general of Tunisia's IRIE regional elections authority.

These are the first elections to be held in the region since the start of the Arab Spring, which began with the uprising against Ben Ali late last year ― a fact that has many commentators in the West anxious for the outcome.

But the nervous speculation that a coup would be staged if a suitable assembly was not elected, widely reported in March after comments to that effect by former interior minister Farhat Rahji, has largely been swept under the carpet. This is partly due to polls showing the Islamist party Ennahda (“The Renaissance”) was unlikely to gain more than 25% of the vote.

Based on the polls in the days leading up to the vote, the centre-left parties looked to take a larger share of the vote. The three centre-left parties, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL/Ettakatol) and Congress for the Republic (CPR), were polling about or more than 10% each ― potentially giving a centre-left coalition the largest number of seats in the assembly.

The assembly will be responsible for redrafting the constitution, written in 1959 under Ben Ali's predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Many Tunisians see this as essential in ensuring a new dictatorship does not replace Ben Ali's regime.

However, it will also be responsible for appointing an interim government until a new system of government is determined and fresh elections, scheduled for the end of next year, are held.

In the lead up to the poll, many Tunisians had still not decided which parties they would vote for; 40% of responses indicated they would not vote for anyone in a September 10 poll by Sigma. A poll by Tunisia's Observatory of the Democratic Transition on September 29 put the percentage at 21%.

The interim government announced initiatives to encourage voters to take part and find out more about the myriad of groups contesting the elections.

Television and radio advertising has been tightly regulated to give all parties the same space. Walls of government buildings, businesses and mosques in every electorate have been divided up to allow posters from each group.

However, there were still many cynics. A commonly expressed sentiment on the street was that these elections would be no different to the fraudulent ones held by the Ben Ali regime.

As most of the old, corrupt state structures from Ben Ali's regime remain intact, this is hardly surprising.

Despite the relative stability of the election period, Tunisians have continued to take politics to the street. On October 9 ― the same night that Coptic Christian protesters were being massacred in Cairo ― groups of conservative Salafist Muslims tried to storm private Tunisian station Nessma TV in response to the screening of the Iranian-French film Persepolis.

Police dispersed the protests.

In response to the violence, thousands of Tunisians have marched throughout the country in defence of freedom of thought and against extremism. There was a march of more than 2000 people in Tunis on October 16 and demonstrations in other cities such as Monastir, Bizerte and Sousse.

A Facebook group initiating the protests, “A3ta9ni ” (“Leave me alone”) describes the movement as "the voice of every Tunisian who does not accept restrictions on freedom of opinion, both from the official authorities or the religious authorities that suppress dissention or rebellion”.

The group may have tapped into the frustration of many Tunisians who feel the elections have derailed the progress of the revolution in getting rid of Ben Ali's corrupt regime.

Many Tunisians are optimistic about the elections. But if the constituent assembly is not able to deliver real gains for the democratic struggle on the ground, a new wave of mass revolutionary struggle seems likely.


For more info on election results, including an interesting regional breakdown, check out Tunisia Live's coverage: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2011/11/03/how-did-people-vote-on-october-23rd/

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