Tunisia’s elections will show whether it’s still the model country of the Arab Spring

Too many options.
Too many options.
Image: AP Photo/Hassene Dridi
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Tomorrow, Tunisians will hit the polls to vote in their second free legislative elections since the 2011 revolution–and their first since passing a new constitution in January. A legislative assembly will come into office for the next five years, and after the presidential elections later next month, the transitional phase of democracy will come to a close.

Across the region, the hopeful ambitions of democracy and freedom that ushered in the Arab Spring nearly four years ago have transformed into practical concerns: economy, stability, and transparency. Nowhere is that clearer than in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began and hopes still linger for a sustainable democracy in the Arab world.

In the past three years, Tunisia has been seen as a case study of whether democracy can work in the Arab world. Now, Tunisians will show who it is—the Islamists, the secularists, or both—they want leading their country into their next phase of development.

Voters seem to have learned to value their vote enough to think things through. But after nearly a month of aggressive campaigning, many voters are still undecided.

Complicating things, the dichotomy isn’t solely between Ennahda—the moderate Islamist group who has maintained a large support base—and just any secular party. The secularists are divided into numerous groups—centrists, leftists, socialists, communists, independents, and more–many with nuanced differences. In fact, there are so many candidates that news organizations have inconsistent figures. Al Jazeera puts the number at either 15,256 or above 13,000, while the Tunisian-based Nawaat.org puts it at 9,449.

M’henni Borgi, a 60-year-old retired English professor, is one of those undecided Tunisians. After having lived through the administrations of two previous presidents who maintained dictatorial powers, Borgi isn’t ready to vote for just anybody. With more than 45 candidate lists to choose from in his district alone, it’s no easy decision.

“I’m wavering between individual morality, competence, and honesty, which I find in members of Ennahda,” he explained. “But as far as policy—progressiveness, human rights, economic principles, etc.—I’m attached to the secularists. But how do I even choose between all these secularists?”

Sami Ben Gharbia, 40, is the co-founder of Nawaat.org. He says the indecision of many voters makes sense.

“Based on the numbers of parties we have, I think it’s hard for people to really vote for a particular list, except for those who are maybe sensitized with a party because they are a member of it, are advocates for a certain school or know someone in it,” Ben Gharbia said. “It’s easier [for them] to make a decision against whom they are voting for, but it’s difficult to choose a party who they are voting for.”

A concept called “le vote de sanction”—voting for one party simply because it opposes another disliked party—is being heard often as of late.

Myriam Labidi, a 25-year-old counselor for students looking to study in the US, may employ this tactic on Sunday.

“I do not want Ennahda,” she said. “I’m having a hard time deciding between Nidaa Tounes and Afek Tounes. My boyfriend’s relatives are part of Afek, and they’re good people, so I’ve thought of voting for them. But, I know Nidaa has a better chance of beating Ennahda, so maybe I’ll vote for them even though I know some of them are corrupt.”

Extremism versus corruption is a common dilemma for those choosing between Ennahda and Nidda Tounes, the secularist party formed in 2012 by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi. Nidaa, to the concern of many, includes representatives from regime of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—but it also is the most viable rival to Ennahda.

Olfa Khalil, 45, is an executive board member of Nidaa Tounes and argues that corruption is more manageable than Islamic extremists, a problem she argues exists in some factions of Ennahda. Khalil says security and stability are the biggest concerns of Tunisians, and Sebsi, with his prior experience and knowledge of the country, is the best fit to lead it in that direction.

“Yes, there is some corruption in Nidaa, but Tunisia is building a strong civil society of watchdogs and media, and corruption will be called out,” she said. “It’s much harder to deal with extremists, because they will just kill people against them.”

Nidaa Tounes has an undoubtedly significant following: Estimates by the Sigma Conseil put its supporters at around 45% of voters in the summer. Many of the party’s supporters worry that Ennahda’s ideology will impose anti-democratic principles in Tunisia and are betting that Nidaa Tounes, with its followers from various key demographics, including the business sector, can at least fix the economy.

But Ennahda says these accusations of extremism are unfounded. After the revolution, the party won 89 of 217 seats in the National Constituent Assembly in 2011. It worked in coalition with two secular parties (Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic), appointed women as heads of several key committees, and helped pass one of the region’s most progressive constitutions. Its leadership has asked, what more must be done to prove itself?

“We feel the issues of identity and ideology have been settled based on the last several years,” said Yusra Ghannouchi, 36, the daughter of Ennahda President Rachid Ghannouchi and an international spokesperson for the party. “Tunisians are now taking time to familiarize themselves with different parties and the programs on offer because this is all relatively new. There are a lot of undecided voters, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing; it makes parties work harder to attract them.”

Despite the uncertainty, experts are optimistic about Tunisia’s future.

“Whether or not they have decided which party to vote for, Tunisians look to these elections as an important step forward in the transitional process,” said Nicole Rowsell, Country Director for National Democratic Institute in Tunisia. “As they consider this choice, they will weigh the track records of competing parties with their own views of what could help bring about a better future.”

If Tunisia is able to conduct successful, transparent elections on Sunday, and in November when voting for its president, it will have effectively set a complete example—from a relatively non-violent revolution to installing a democratically-elected government—for the rest of the Arab world.