Tunisia votes: Moderation is a key asset

By reaching compromises, the country will reinforce its traditional inclination for moderation with Sunday’s vote.

Some 100 parties and 11,200 candidates with ideologies ranging from liberalism to Arab nationalism, and from Islamism to environmentalism, are vying for 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly in Sunday’s elections [EPA]

For those seeking answers to whether the Arab Spring can establish viable democracies in a tumultuous region, the coming Tunisian elections of the country’s highest governing body, the Constituent Assembly, are unlikely to prove satisfying. Historic as they may be, the elections alone will not institutionalise democracy, much less solve the country’s myriad problems. 

Tunisians are facing their first free elections on October 23 with a strange mix of popular mistrust, political fragmentation and yet a hopeful moderation. This traditional sense of moderation bodes well for the country. 

For a country that does not have a long democratic tradition, the promise to a better future lies less in a newly-cherished electoral democracy than in a long history of moderation. The elections are of particular significance not simply because they endow political governance with a much-valued legitimacy, but because they induce a nation-wide debate among the various constituents of the Tunisian society and across the political spectrum, which is bound to reinforce and extend Tunisia’s culture of moderation.

In the past few months, the country witnessed an unprecedented political momentum. The dismantling of the hegemonic ruling party and the legalisation of new parties overdosed the country in politics. Some 100 parties and 11,200 candidates with ideologies ranging from liberalism to Arab nationalism, and from Islamism to environmentalism are vying for 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly, which will be tasked with drafting a new constitution that aspires to modern and participatory governance. 

Seeking legitimacy

These are not the first elections since the country’s independence in 1956, but they are the first free elections where the outcome is not pre-determined. The elections were originally set to take place on July 24, but technical and logistic considerations compelled the transitional government of Beji Kaid Cebsi to postpone them at the recommendation of the Election Committee—the newly-formed independent body in charge of overseeing the election process.

Follow our continuing coverage of Tunisia’s vote

With these shifting dynamics causing considerable anxiety, most voters are at a loss as to who to vote for. There is a general sense of mistrust of political institutions, which has contributed to a surge in candidates (an estimated 40 per cent) standing election as independents. Similarly, there is fear that, although active members of the disbanded state party are not authorised to stand in the elections, some old-regime figures have re-entered the political game through the back door.

Although fragmented, the political scene at the moment lacks real diversity. The generic discourses of these parties reiterate the same rhetorical commitment to democracy, freedom, justice, good governance and rule of law. This at least verbal moderation is shared even by the country’s Islamic party, Ennahda, whose leaders insist on the Arab-Islamic identity of the country while stressing the importance of the existing Personal Status Code which grants women more rights than any other Arab country. Significantly, this moderation has helped shape the consensus that support for the continued operation of a civilian government can favor a transition toward real democratic change. Unlike Egypt, the Tunisian military establishment remains in the barracks. 

Formidable challenges

The election of a Constituent Assembly will replace the unelected post-revolutionary political establishment, which has been the source of contention and the subject of popular scepticism. It brings a much needed-legitimacy which can help assuage the fear of a counter-revolution and nurture the country’s burgeoning democratic tendencies. But electoral legitimacy by itself is no guarantee for democratic progress. What is particularly promising is the country’s general disposition to tolerate and engage the Other. Even if the political debates between ideologically dissonant political forces have been at times contentious, there are some signs of political good will. In a move intended to ward off political abuse, 11 parties have voluntarily signed a roadmap document agreeing to limit the mandate of the Constituent Assembly to one year.

Although so far Tunisia has managed to weather the storm, formidable challenges remain: a lagging economy, sporadic civil unrest, an unreformed judicial system, high levels of unemployment, increased popular demands for social and economic justice, and entrenched vestiges of the old regime. Furthermore, the prolonged military campaign in revolutionary Libya and the influx of thousands of refugees have heightened the country’s border security issues while the apathy for change in neighbouring Algeria has raised questions about the regional sustainability of democratisation.

Given the absence of a democratic tradition in the country, the institutionalisation of a democratic system may not be a smooth process.  While the elections can potentially shape the country’s post-revolutionary future, the immediate outcome is less likely to be a palpable political sea-change than a new mind-set, namely that Tunisia has crossed the first threshold on a long road towards democracy. 

The value of the upcoming elections may lie less in their outcome than in the Tunisian people’s participation in a contested unpredictable selection of leaders. By making choices and reaching compromises the country is reinforcing its traditional inclination for moderation. This may yet prove to be its most important contribution to democracy.

Mohamed Zayani is an Associate Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is currently completing a book entitled Tunisia: A Revolution in the Age of Media. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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