Election monitor describes Tunisia’s elections and hope for future

‘There are only so many times a population relishes the idea of going to vote’

Election workers take ballots from a polling station in Tunisia (photo credit: COURTESY / JONATHAN SCHANZER)
Election workers take ballots from a polling station in Tunisia
Tunisia voted over the weekend in its third parliamentary elections since the 2011 revolution that brought a new sense of democracy to the country. With 41% turnout, the election faced some hurdles, but nevertheless shows the country is on a different path than many of its neighbors that are struggling with authoritarianism or instability.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, went to Tunis to observe the elections as part of a delegation. For five days, he was able to learn how the country approached its democratic process. After an introduction to the way the procedure was supposed to work and the territory he was assigned to, he went to watch the ballots arrive at the polling station and get a sense of how it was set up.
“Basically [the balloting] was in primary schools that served as polling centers around the country,” Schanzer explained. “So each station was in a classroom. Each polling station had 600 or so ballots for a segment of a population in an area.”
From his observations, the officials followed the law and there were only minor irregularities.
“My understanding was this was reflective of the broader vote,” Schanzer said. “Turnout was a bit low. One gets a sense there is voting fatigue. There are only so many times a population relishes the idea of going to vote.”
Tunisia has a three-stage election this year, with a first-round presidential election that took place in September, followed by the parliamentary election that took place on October 6 and a final runoff for the presidency on October 13.
The parliamentary elections appeared to be a victory for the Ennahda Party over the Heart of Tunisia Party, which was founded in June. At the presidential level, Nabil Karoui is running as head of the Heart of Tunisia Party, even though he was in prison for much of the campaigning. An independent lawyer named Kais Saied is running against him.
Schanzer notes that the Ennahda Party has political Islamist roots but have renounced their more hard core conservative and Muslim Brotherhood leanings in favor of democracy. Schanzer compares the elections in Tunisia to those recently in Israel, noting that both had corruption scandals hanging over them alongside voter fatigue.
“One thing I would note is we are eight years into Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmin revolution, and on the one hand, it is heartening to see a continuation of a democratic process and its evolution,” Schanzer said. “On the other hand, there are complications, such as legal challenges and legitimacy when a candidate is being held on legal charges.”
Building democracy is a long process – not one found in just one election. After being ruled by a 30-year dictatorship, Tunisia is still emerging from the shadows of a more authoritarian state.
“One thing to note is that we are watching a democratic deficit worldwide,” says Schanzer.
Countries like Tunisia, that are becoming more democratic – or at least staying the same – are rare. That is a positive sign, according to Schanzer.
“Tunisia is something of a success story, but Syria [and] Yemen are what happens when the process goes wrong,” he said.
However, there are frustrations on the street. People want an end to the old economic regulations of the pre-2011 era.
Tunisia has suffered security threats in recent years. Schanzer says that the military was deployed for the election, but it didn’t feel like a large deployment. There were a few arrests in the lead-up to the polling.
It was Schanzer’s first visit to Tunisia.
“For me, obviously it was intensely interesting as an observer of the region, as someone who recalls the Arab Spring, and in many ways, the country is doing better,” he notes.
One can take heart from seeing children come with their parents to vote, he says. As they dipped their fingers in the ink reserved for adult voters, they became part of a process that hopefully will be there when they grow up.