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Election Tests Fledgling Democracy in Tunisia After Arab Spring

An estimated 60 percent of Tunisia's 5 million registered voters turned out to elect a new parliament Sunday, but some say the country's transition to democracy is still incomplete.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Oct 28 2014, 12:21am

Photo by Aimen Zine/AP

Clashes broke out in the days leading up to Tunisia's parliamentary elections Sunday, prompting fears of a terror attack that would deter many of the country's 5.2 million registered voters from going to the polls. A police officer was killed Thursday after shots were fired against an Islamist group in the town of Oued Ellil, near Tunis, but the election ultimately saw a peaceful transfer of power from Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, to Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), a new secular party founded in 2012.

The elections marked the second time the country has cast ballots since the popular protests that ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, triggering the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East. An estimated 60 percent of registered voters turned out Sunday to elect 217 members of parliament.

Zied Ladhari, a spokesman for Ennahda, congratulated Nidaa Tounes on their victory Monday following the returns from several key districts. Ennhada had come under fire for a lax record on security, and for perceived leniency toward jihadist groups, an accusation denied by the party.

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Tunisia's porous borders with Algeria and Libya are a key transfer point for armed militants and contraband throughout the region. One intelligence estimate puts the number of Tunisians currently engaged in jihad in Syria and Iraq at around 3,000, and their country fears their return.

Prime minister Mehdi Jomaa was appointed in 2013 and tasked with ending a political crisis between Ennahda and its secular opposition, and with organizing transparent parliamentary elections. In an interview with French news site Rue89, he spoke of the progress in his mission to dismantle the country's network of radical imams. 

'In 2011, people were enthusiastic. It was a celebratory atmosphere. This year, it's the fear of the future that drew people back to the polls.'

"There used to be 149 mosques that were officially outside of the control of the ministry for religious affairs, and many outlaw mosques," Jomaa said. "These have now been closed. As far as we know, there are only 17 problematic mosques left."

Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a political scientist at the Sorbonne and a specialist on the Maghreb (a region of North Africa west of Egypt) at Paris' Sorbonne University, spoke to VICE News a few days prior to the elections. 

"We don't know who is responsible for Thursday's attacks, quite probably Salafists who do not believe in the democratic system," Mohsen-Finan explained. "In any case, it is something that was seeded during the campaign; there is a group of people who want to destabilize the elections. But the real tension lies elsewhere, in who will win the majority of votes."

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Nidaa Tounes, a secular party that campaigned on its opposition of Ennahda's Islamist agenda, appears to represent a new political viewpoint. However, a close inspection of the party reveals a core of longstanding political figures, including some that served as ministers under Ben Ali, the overthrown dictator. In fact, 87-year-old party leader Béji Caïd Essebsi, who served as prime minister following the January 2011 revolution, was originally a cabinet member in the 1950s, serving under the father of Tunisian independence, Habib Bourguiba.

According to Mohsen-Finan, Tunisia is not witnessing a genuine renewal of its political class. This would explain a low election turnout of 61.8 percent, according to provisional figured provided by the High Electoral Commission (ISIE).

"Young people are tempted not to vote because they don't recognize themselves in a political landscape that does not reflect the ambitions they expressed in 2011," she said. "They thought there would no longer be a party of order, that there would be new and rejuvenated [political] figures, and it is not the case. They thought that the social and economic situation would be improved, but unemployment in the country is at 15 percent. And twice that rate for young people."

Anissa Bouasker, communications officer for the Tunisian Association for the Integrity and Democracy of elections (ATIDE) shares this view. Speaking to VICE News after the election, she highlighted that the towns with the highest voter abstention rates are "the towns that provided the revolution with the most martyrs," such as Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the 2011 revolution, where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire.

For Bouasker, Tunisia's transition into democracy is incomplete. ATIDE also lists many inconsistencies with the vote itself, including candidates running polling stations, children campaigning outside polling stations, and outright vote buying.

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Bouasker also bemoaned an obsolete computer system that did not allow for Tunisians living abroad to vote, and notes that, despite the emergence of election monitoring organizations such as ISIE, little actual progress has been achieved. 

"[The elections] were not better organized this year," she said. "We did not make the most of what we learned in 2011. In 2011, people were enthusiastic. It was a celebratory atmosphere. This year, it's the fear of the future that drew people back to the polls."

Nevertheless, Tunisian political figures seem to be seeking consensus and striving to show voters results.

"Ennahda has shown Tunisians some positive signs by retiring from government in 2013 [in the midst of a political crisis]. They are following the consensus and focusing on the long term," Mohsen-Finan said.

On Monday morning, Tunisian media lauded the calm and the spirit of national unity in which voting took place. "Despite our dictatorships, democracy is in our genes," the Tunisian daily Le Temps wrote. 

Asked about people applauding the progress of democracy in Tunisia, Bouasker quoted ironically from the lyrics to an old French song, written to mock the forced enthusiasm of French governments in the face of rising Nazism: "Yes, duchess, everything is just wonderful."

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