Continuing our series of election reports, we are pleased to welcome the following pre-election report on this Sunday’s historic Tunisian elections from Professor Jason Brownlee of the University of Texas, Austin, the author of Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization. Brownlee is currently co-authoring, with Andrew Reynolds and Tarek Masoud, a book that connects the Arab Spring to scholarship on revolutions, transitions from authoritarianism, and constitutional design.
As the 117 political parties of post-Ben Ali Tunisia conclude their campaigns Friday, the country promises once more to be the bellwether of the Arab Spring. Nine months ago Tunisians inspired their neighbors and stunned the world by pushing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leïla Trabelsi, into exile. This Sunday, Tunisians will hold the first competitive elections since the current Arab uprisings began. Voters will select 199 (of 217) delegates of a National Constituent Assembly, which will in turn compose a new constitution and establish the framework through which Tunisians will form a permanent government (parliamentary or presidential). Another eighteen delegates are already being chosen, by expatriate Tunisians
who started casting ballots in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East on Thursday.
According to a report published by IFES this summer, districts within Tunisia range in size from four to ten seats, with each delegate representing approximately 60,000 people (in a country of 10.5 million). The most populous of Tunisia’s twenty-four governorates (Tunis, Sfax, Nabeul) have been split into two districts (of 9 and 8 seats; 7 and 9; and 7 and 6, respectively). All lists are required to alternate between male and female candidates, although the insertion of women candidates below the top position may matter little for small parties struggling to eke out a single place in the Assembly. Seats will be allocated proportionally, by closed lists based on thresholds set as the quotient of votes cast divided by seats contested. The presumptive beneficiary of this system is Ennahda (“Renaissance”), Tunisia’s leading Islamic party which reemerged in January after decades of being banned and repressed by Ben Ali, while its leadership worked from exile. Multiple polls show Ennahda enjoying a substantial plurality of popular support
In their campaign members of Ennahda have gone to great lengths to convey their commitment to democracy. (Alternatively, one could say the party’s campaign reflects the group’s preexisting commitment to democracy). Official statements and campaign flyers in Tunis suggest Ennahda is the only party to place a woman (Dr. Souad Abderrahim, who does not wear the head scarf) at the top of one of its district level lists. Abdel Rahim’s spot could be interpreted as a token gesture, except that it meshes with a broader program based on transparency, non-violence, and rotation of power over the long term. As Said Ferjani, a member of the party’s political bureau explained to me at Ennahda headquarters, the group realizes it enjoys widespread popularity now , but this will not always be the case. Hence Ennahda’s stated goal is to help build a system that will be equitable and competitive over successive rounds, institutionalizing both uncertainty and fairness for the long haul. Ennahda’s interest in establishing a stable playing field for future elections may help explain why the group embraces international observers from the Carter Center and the EU, and why it rejected claims from some Tunisian politicians that election monitoring infringes on national sovereignty.
Tunisian leftists and liberals express skepticism about Ennahda’s long-term vision, as well as frustration over their own splintered field. But they are quick to point out the vast—and, for their country, salutary—differences between Tunisia and Ennahda on one hand, and Egypt and its Islamic movements, on the other. In contrast to Egypt, so far the only other Arab society this year to topple an autocrat without foreign intervention, Tunisians shattered the hold of the former ruling party and the security apparatus. Whereas Egyptian protesters labor beneath (and increasingly against) the supervision of their country’s top brass- Tunisian oppositionists have directed the transition process since late February—when the Kasbah 2 uprising ejected Ben Ali’s final prime minister. In addition, despite some pre-electoral anxiety among Tunisian Islamists and liberals alike, the programmatic differences among the top competitors for votes this weekend appear to be much narrower, and the space for common ground much broader, than what Egyptians have witnessed among their political forces of late.
Beyond the Middle East, in a broader comparative perspective, Tunisia’s medium-size population, socio-economic development level (over $4000/capita in 2011 dollars), and civilian-led transition offer a promising example for meaningful democratic transition during this and subsequent years. Sunday’s election, the vote count, and the composition of the National Constituent Assembly could very well represent a milestone, not just for the Arab Spring but for global hopes of reversing a democratic recession Tunisians kicked off a year of contentious politics, from the tent city of Tahrir Square to the encampments of “Occupy Wall Street.” Now they stand poised to pioneer the way from revolution to representation.
The author thanks Laryssa Chomiak, Director of the Centre d’études maghrébines à Tunis , for providing incisive comments on an earlier draft of this essay.