Challenges to Tunisia's fast-track democracy

First step in democratic transition - creating new voter lists - has been bumpy, but volunteers have pitched in.

    Tunisian citizens in France register for October's vote, many for the first time [Photo courtesy of Karim Bensaida]

    A faded poster greets Tunisians living in France who have come to register to vote in what they hope will be their country's first free and fair election later this year.

    "Tunisia, a desire for serenity," reads the advert, which appears to have been strategically positioned in a message to those queuing for registration.

    The tourist poster, which shows a woman in a red dress looking out to a peaceful palm tree-laden horizon, is not the only aspect of the Tunisian consulate in Pantin, a working class neighbourhood on the northeastern edge of Paris, to harken back to the pre-revolutionary era. 

    In the consular building, where few faces have changed, people speak in hushed voices, as though they are waiting to see if the days of the political police are really over.

    Most of those interviewed by Al Jazeera seem cautiously hopeful.

    Taoufik Chebil, an elderly man who is registering for the electoral roll for the first time in his life, says that he feels efforts have been made to make the process as simple as possible.

    "I've never voted in my life, there was no need to come in before because the results were decided ahead of time," he says.

    Outside the consulate, a 32-year-old man is more sceptical.

    Brahim Mezri, who has also never voted, says he has come to renew his passport and that he will not be registering until the political class has gained his trust.

    "Nothing is clear in our country right now," he says, adding that he will vote in a future election if the vote is clean this time around.

    Autumn approaches

    Tunisia's interim government has pledged to do away with the irredeemably tainted electoral lists created under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and to create a fresh, uncorrupted list of voters to put the fledgling democracy on the right path. 

    "We must fight. And it's a rough battle. If you want to change things, you need to get active."

    Houda Zekri, citizen volunteer

    The initial timeframe for the enrollments, for Tunisians residing both at home and abroad, was July 11 until August 2.

    By Saturday evening, with just three days left, 1.76mn of those living in their homeland had registered – less than a quarter of the 7.5mn estimated eligible voters, according to the Tunisian Higher Election Authority (ISIE by its French acronym). 

    Kamel Jendoubi, president of the ISIE, announced in a television appearance on Saturday evening that the enrollment process would be extended until August 14, in a bid to get registration numbers up (the number had risen to 2.11mn on Monday at the time of publication).

    The ISIE has not released statistics regarding some 600,000 Tunisian citizens living in France.

    Tunisians living in France will elect ten of the 218 members of the constituent assembly, though no information has been provided about where the voting lines will fall.

    Houda Zekri, a volunteer helping to gather the enrolments at Pantin says 5,000 voters had been added to the list at that consulate as of Saturday evening, but there is no database combining registrations from the rest of France.

    Some people have called on the government to allow for remote registration, but for now voters must show up in person, both to register, and to cast their ballot in October. For many living in more remote parts of France, this means they will need to travel long distances twice over.

    Maria Cristina Paciello, a researcher at the International Affairs Institute (IAI) and lecturer in economic and political geography at the University of Rome, says that if Tunisian authorities do not address the low enrollment, citizens able to vote in October will be in the minority.

    "Tunisians do not trust the system and this can prevent them from participating in the process," she says, pointing to the many members of the old regime still in a position to influence the election.

    Alexander Keyssar, who specialises in the study of democracy and elections at the Harvard Kennedy School, says that striking a balance between mechanisms to prevent voter fraud with the need to make the registration and voting procedure as inclusive as possible is not always easy, especially in such a limited timeframe.

    "Any electoral mechanisms and electoral rules that make it easier for people to vote and easier for people to register are also somewhat more susceptible to fraud," he says. "While mechanisms that are designed to prevent fraud almost always have the effect of disenfranchising legitimate voters."

    The key to enabling the greatest possible number of citizens to participate in the vote, he says, is taking a flexible approach and taking additional measures as needed.

    Part of the challenge is rooted in the ambitious timeline set by the interim government for the country to prepare for the vote to elect a constituent assembly.

    Ben Ali, who had ruled the country since a bloodless coup in 1987, was forced from power on January 14. A date for Tunisians to elect a new government was hastily scheduled for July, but as that date crept closer, the vote was postponed until October 23.

    The October vote will be a crucial one in shaping the country's political future. Those elected will be tasked with writing a new constitution and deciding on the shape of the country's future political system.

    Hopes are high that Tunisians will be able to claim the fruits of their uprising, and that they will, as the protesters demanded, be given the chance to cast votes that will actually be counted, for leaders of their choosing.

    Yet the transitional period has thus far been marked by instability, as rival political factions compete to influence the transitional process.

    Jendoubi has come under pressure from leading opposition parties, notably the well-established al-Nahda Islamist party - which stands to dominate the election according to recent polls - to take the country to the polls as quickly as possible, with little heed for the bureaucratic obstacles such a speedy transition may bring. 

    This accelerated rhythm sets Tunisia (and Egypt) apart from the rate at which many other post-authoritarian nations have transformed.

    Augusto Pinochet's relinquishing of power in Chile, for instance, was a more gradual, negotiated process, stresses Sergio Bitar, who was elected to the democratic government that succeeded the notorious military regime.

    "In Tunisia and Egypt, what I observed is that the challenge is much larger, because things have happened so abruptly," Bitar, who became Chile's vice-president in 1990, says.

    "But on the other side, the movement for democracy is already open," he adds, noting that citizen engagement and vigilance will be vital to overcoming the many challenges that lie ahead for Tunisians. 

    He says that Chile's 1988 plebiscite, though conducted while Pinochet was still in power, was nonetheless a success thanks to the massive mobilisation of ordinary Chilean and international observers.

    "I would say that that's the most critical point to be absolutely sure that you are dealing with a fair election," says Bitar, who has been closely following the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt.

    Keyssar agrees that few democratic transitions have been held to as tight a schedule as the one Tunisia is undergoing.

    One possible comparison in this respect, he notes, is Portugal's vote in April 1975. Portugal held a successful election within a year of its own military coup, and went on to become a stable democracy.

    The crucial difference, however, is that the Portuguese military was in a position to provide stability during the transitional period. 

    "Part of what's difficult in [the Tunisian] situation is the question of who wields legitimate power until you get a new set of institutions," the Harvard professor says.

    "It's easier to move slowly if there's some institution that has what is perceived as legitimate power."

    Amid the turmoil, some Tunisian citizens living abroad told Al Jazeera that they feel the interim government has exerted little effort to ensuring that expatriates will be able to take part in the historic vote.

    Ali Gargouri, a Tunisian citizen living in France who plans to run as an independent candidate in the upcoming election told Al Jazeera that the authorities had not done enough to inform people of how the registration worked. He called on officials to promote the inscriptions on radio stations for North Africans living in France, and to make the process more transparent and coordinated.

    Volunteers take charge

    Houda Zekri was one of a group of volunteers so dismayed by the Pantin consular staff's lack of enthusiasm towards registration that they took things into their own hands.

    "We told them we weren't satisfied," Zekri says. "They're not doing anything, they don't care. They don't understand why we're here. It's as if we were staging an occupation."

    It was chaotic, Zekri says, and only 500 people had registered between July 11 and 18.

    Zekri was one of the founding members of an independent organisation they are calling the Citizens' Collective for Free Elections in Tunisia, which is stepping in to ensure that bureaucrats play by the rules.

    "We are not part of the former regime," she explains.

    Until the volunteers moved into the consulate a week after registrations began, there were no signs giving information about voting enrollment, no dedicated staff taking the enrollments, and prospective voters' incomplete details were taken on scraps of paper.

    Since the volunteers arrived, they have extended the opening hours (9am-6pm, seven days a week) to allow more flexibility for would-be voters.

    Zekri says one member of the consular staff approached the volunteers with a piece of paper, requesting his own list of unknown people be added to the volunteers list.

    They refused, telling him that those days are over.

    She is worried, however, that when the volunteers finish the list and hand it to the consulate authorities, it could easily be altered.

    "I'm really afraid that the lists will be tampered with."

    "It's not as if they've become democratic and nice overnight," she says. "We must fight. And it's a rough battle. If you want to change things, you need to get active."

    For Keyssar, neutral civilian monitors like the Citizens' Collective can work alongside the existing Tunisian bureaucracy to offer a relatively inexpensive and achievable means to overcome mistrust and to make the vote a success.

    Karim Bensaida, who has come to Pantin to enroll for the first time, says that Tunisians must take the time to learn what democracy entails.

    "I think Tunisians have always had a developed sense of civic duty," he says.

    There may not be a tradition of free suffrage, he adds, but it is up to Tunisian citizens to become engaged in the democratic process and learn to trust each other.

    "We can't purge the entire Tunisian bureaucracy. It's the system we must battle, not individuals," Bensaida says.

    "After all, who is it we must learn to trust? Each other."

    Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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