Tunisia’s democratisation taking off

Tunisia’s constitution and electoral law have laid a solid foundation for the long process of democratisation.

Tunisia adopted its new constitution on January 27 [AFP]

The Arab World has never had a democratic polity – Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco have had worthy approximations. Oil-poor Tunisia is emerging as the region’s first genuine democracy. That will be an enriching process in civic, social, cultural, political and economic terms.

The opportunities that come with democratic opening are boundless: Political renewal and democracy may function as Tunisia’s “oil”, in more than one way to support the polity and economy.

While the imminent completion of Tunisia’s construction of the legal framework for democratising the country bodes well for the long and arduous task of building a truly democratically governable society, there are still challenges ahead.  

Specificity of the Tunisian experiment

In any democratisation process, the challenge is always how to construct a system that is durable, neutral, and a guarantor of equal opportunity. During such a process, institution-building must measure up to the imposition of checks on the winners, without compromising political opportunity for the losers.

For “transitologists”, from Robert Dahl to Laurence Whitehead, neither uncontested definitions of democracy, nor universally applicable methods of democratic transitions are ponderable in a multicultural world. Similarly, there are no single and fixed means for measuring democratisation. For instance, what Freedom House quantifies as evidence of democratisation, more often than not misses the “qualitative” mark.

Listening Post – Tunisia’s multiplying media

Tunisia thus far seems to be well on its way towards a democratisation “take-off”. The country’s recent acquisition of the electoral “tool-kit” made up of the election commission and the election law close the legal circle begun with constitution-making.

This year saw the promulgation of the country’s new democratic constitution. By any standards, it measures up to the task of guarantor of equal opportunity. It enshrines gender equality, pluralism, rule of law, and has clear provisions for equal distribution for individuals and regions. It has an emancipatory and inclusive content that guard against oppressive and exclusionary tendencies, preventing the return of dictatorship.

The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has done a stellar job as the engine house of Tunisia’s democratisation, and this is a key specificity that distinguishes Tunisia from faltering neighbouring democratisation processes. By voting via secret ballot and by a two-thirds majority on the election commission or Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections (ISIE), the NCA has lent credibility to the democratisation process and legitimacy to the election body. The voting process tested the NCA members’ professionalism to the hilt: They had to vote on each commissioner individually.

The exercise also tested the neutrality and durability of the entire interim system tasked with facilitation of transition. What was evident was adherence to the declared rules of democratic engagement, solidification of dialogical know-how, and evolution of multi-partisan consensus. Moreover, the NCA’s ability to learn from previous mistakes in selecting the nine commissioners, propelled it to rise above narrow partisan interests in the voting of the ISIE’s president, law-maker Shafiq Sarsar, who was entrusted the important post with an absolute majority.

In the foreseeable future, the electoral tool-kit seems, at least theoretically, geared towards living up to the minimalist requirements of procedural democratisation, forming a central aspect of Tunisia’s democratisation. Key to this acquisition is the ability of Tunisia’s polity to build consensus, and the skill of both secularists and Islamists to make compromises. In particular, Tunisia’s Islamists impress not only when it comes to making concessions, but also choosing the right timing for doing so. 

The necessary human capital is in place, what about the laws for meeting the electoral agenda of Tunisia’s democratisation?

The new election law

The opening articles enshrine the principle of free and fair elections, and hold to democratic definitions and principles that outlaw exclusion, abuse of the electoral process, principles of transparency, secrecy of the ballot, and impartiality of those who oversee the administration of polls.

The law (adopted by the NCA on the May 1) is impressive for its conceptual clarity and upholding the principles of transparency. For instance, it distinguishes between “election campaign” and “election period”. Such a distinction is built into the legal text as a mechanism for establishing the “dos” and “don’ts” that relate to when electoral publicity, for instance, begins and ends. The so-called “period of silence” compels all those contesting elections to cease from any type of advertising that promotes parties and candidates.

Tunisia is endowed with the building blocks of a highly civic and interactive emerging polity in which ideology may be receding as a dividing battle line.

Equal access to national media is guaranteed. Publicity and funding from foreign sources are outlawed. The exception is specific to elections held abroad for expatriate communities. Even here, there is insistence on use of Tunisian resources. This is a provision for levelling the playing field. Note that state funding is given to all those contesting elections and is refundable in the case where a party or a candidate achieves less than three percent of the vote in the contested local or national constituency.  

Article 6 excludes members of the Armed and Security Forces from partaking in elections. This exclusion, which can always be revised once democratisation is consolidated, has not extended to the old guard from the former ruling party. This is a plus for the democratisation process and a major concession for which all former regime victims are to be lauded. Tunisia has therefore skipped so-called “lustration”, purification, as it were, of the newly built political system. In particular, the Islamists who form the biggest party victimised by the old regime, have spared the country the risk of inflaming a dangerous ideological division.

The spirit of the election law is inclusiveness and yet it is the rules guiding exclusion that seems to recur within the text. There is, for example, the intended rejuvenation of the political class – 23 is fixed as the age for parliamentary candidacy (Article 19). Article 20 stipulates the exclusion from parliamentary candidacy of judges, diplomats, and governors, unless they resign from their posts first. Dual membership of government and parliament is outlawed, a measure that applies to other situations where clash of interest may compromise neutrality and professional conduct (Articles 35-38).

Similarly, Article 40 sets the conditions for seeking the highest office in the land – the presidency. Candidates may stand at the age of 35, which is almost unique in the Arab region where there are republican systems. However, there is the proviso that the candidate must be Muslim, and must not carry dual citizenship. This is not specific to Tunisia – yet the point is that inclusiveness and exclusiveness intertwine in what is largely a progressive election law. However, in a country where 99 per cent of the population is Muslim, the stipulation that the president must be Muslim may be interpreted as tautological.

Challenges ahead

Tunisia is endowed with the building blocks of a highly civic and interactive emerging polity in which ideology may be receding as a dividing battle line. Testament to this is the facility created by civil society to informally prop up the official legal democratic process through the National Dialogue forum, facilitated by the country’s major trade unions (e.g. UGTT, UTICA, LTDH) and the Tunisian Bar association. One hot item on the agenda to be sorted out within this forum is whether to hold parliamentary and presidential elections simultaneously. Thus where the legal framework and formal institutions fail to address an urgent political problem, burden-sharing is voluntarily taken up by important political stake-holders.

Yet few can be more aware than Tunisians of the tremendous challenges ahead, namely durable economic growth to sustain transition and meet the demands of a youthful population. The aspirations of poor regions also have to be addressed, where a huge backlog in job creation, infrastructure and sanitary needs can threaten democratisation. Thus far Tunisia’s transition has been solely focused on acquiring the building blocks of political – as opposite economic – equality.

What is certain is that in order to ready itself for a democratic process capable of self-regeneration, Tunisia will need a robust economic, including an energy, road-map.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.