Discourse / October 26, 2011

World Politics Corner: Election season comes to Tunisia

Tunisia held an election for the Constituent Committee on Sunday, the first election since former ruler Zine El Abeldine Ben Ali fled the country in January.

Tunisia was the first country in the Middle East to have popular protest against their dictator, energizing millions in what is now called the Arab Spring. After Ben Ali left the country, international journalists focused closely on other countries such as Egypt and Libya. For Tunisia, there was still much work to do.

On Monday, 4.4 million Tunisians out of 7.5 million turned out to vote. There was a 90 percent turnout rate among registered voters, with more voters registering right before going to the ballot box.

The vote was not for a new government, but for a body designated to rewrite the Constitution, which will be in power only for the next year. After the year, the interim heads of state will step down and real elections for the government will take place.

Tuesday, Al-Nahda (sometimes phonetically spelled Ennahda) claimed it won 40 percent of the 217 seats for the council, making it the leading party to form the new constitution. Some estimates go as far as 55 percent. The L’Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections (ISIE), the election committee of Tunisia, has yet to confirm any of the results as of this writing.

Early on in the polls, the formerly banned political group Al-Nahda (meaning The Renaissance) was said to be in the lead. Al-Nahda is a moderate Islamic group, and claims to be modeled after Turkey’s ruling party the AKP (Justice and Development Party). “We are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam and we are against the banning of the headscarf in the name of secularism or modernity,” Rachid Ghannouchi explained, the leader of Al-Nahda. Al-Nahda claims to have close ties with the AKP in Turkey.

Many other parties are either religiously or economically oriented, such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which focuses on raising minimum wages and encourages foreign investment, or Democratic Modernist Coalition (DMC) which makes gender parity and other social issues following a secular model their main priority.

While over 100 parties have been campaigning, many of them being formally banned, one group was cast out from the chance. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Salafist party focusing on a conservative and stringent interpretation of Islam, was banned from participating. It is no surprise why.

But what do the election results possibly mean for Tunisia’s new Constitution?

An early indication of what is to come can be seen in the initial aftermath of the elections. For one, many secular groups are refusing to accept the election results. Al-Nahda has called them sore losers, while reaching out to the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettaktol, two large secular parties, to form a unity government. CPR and Ettaktol are considering the offer. PDP has acknowledged its low numbers and accepted the results.

The divide between the secular demands and Islamist demands will come up in the formation of the government, and many international observers are wondering how much like Turkey’s AKP Al-Nahda really is. International pressure is definitely bearing weight in these considerations because Tunisia has a need for foreign investments.

So far, the economy and religion of the country are the only two issues, but those two issues influence each other and serve as the umbrellas for other issues.

For example, while Ben Ali was in power women were given more rights than would have been allowed in a Salafist nation, under the still banned party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Now, many women are looking closely at the elections, hoping to either retain their rights and achieve more, or follow a more conservative route, (there are women who support the Hizb ut-Tahrir). Some political parties would like to see a gender parity law mandating that 50 percent of the seats of government be reserved for women candidates, which would be the most progressive move towards gender parity in the world. The likelihood of this coming true is still in question and serious doubt.

Overall though, there was no violence as anticipated, there was no badgering and most importantly there was transparency.

“This election to me was hands-down the best, the most promising I’ve ever seen, including in the United States,” Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and former US congresswoman from California, said at a press conference in Tunisia. Around 150 observers from the European Union were also on the ground to monitor the elections and have reiterated that the elections were transparent and fair.

Now we just have to wait and see how the year plays out, moving from campaign slogans to actual solutions.

Rana Tahir
Rana Tahir is a political columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering international issues. She will graduate in June 2013 with degrees in political science and creative writing, after which she will attend the University of Denver's publishing institute.

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