Election Reports

2009 Tunisian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections

Joshua Tucker Oct 27 '09

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As part of our “continuing series of election reports”:https://themonkeycage.org/2009/09/election_reports_and_political.html, we are pleased to have “Trey Causey”:http://www.soc.washington.edu/people/grads_detail.asp?UID=tcausey of the University of Washington provide the following update on this Sunday’s Tunisian elections. As always, we continue to look for people to provide reports on other “forthcoming elections”:https://themonkeycage.org/2009/10/election_reports_and_political_1.html. Here is Trey’s report:

Tunisians “re-elected President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to his fifth term”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8325378.stm on Sunday, October 25th, capturing 89.62% of the vote with 4,238,711 votes, according to official sources. The result was widely regarded as unsurprising and indicative of the degree to which Ben Ali controls political outcomes in the country. Although three additional candidates opposed Ben Ali in the election, only one candidate, Ahmed Ibrahim, represented anything that could legitimately be called opposition. The remaining two candidates, Mohamed Bouchica and Ahmed Inoubli, voiced their support for Ben Ali, although they managed to capture 5.01% and 3.80% of the vote, respectively. The opposition candidate, Ahmed Ibrahim of the Movement Ettajdid (Renewal), captured a mere 1.57% of the total with 74,257 votes. Turnout was reported as approaching 90% of eligible voters.

Parliamentary elections were also held for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house. Tunisiaian law dictates that the party that wins a simple majority of votes shall receive 75% of the total seats in the Chamber. The President’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) unsurprisingly captured 84.59% of the vote and retain control of the chamber with 161 seats. Twenty-five seats had been added to the Chamber since the 2004 general elections; sixteen of these went to the RCD. The remaining fifty-three seats were distributed among the Movement of Socialist Democrats (16 seats), the Party of People’s Unity (12), the Unionist Democratic Union (9), the Social Liberal Party (8), the Green Party for Progress (6), and the Movement Ettajdid (2). Of these parties, only Ibrahim’s Renewal Movement could seriously be called an opposition party; further, despite the increase in available parliamentary seats, Renewal conceded one of their three seats won in the 2004 Chamber of Deputies. Members of the upper house, the Chamber of Councilors, are seated by selection, with the vast majority of these seats appointed directly by the President or by members of the RCD-controlled lower-house.

Despite the one-sided outcome, the results pose some interesting questions for observers of elections in authoritarian states in general and in North Africa in particular.

Economic conditions in Tunisia continue to be among the best in Africa, posting positive annual growth throughout the global recessionary period. Nearly three-quarters of the population is considered middle-class, although unemployment continues to pose a problem for the government. Bourgeoisie, no democracy, if you will. Many point to the small country’s continued economic stability as the primary explanation for a lack of popular opposition to Ben Ali’s continued rule, although others point to the willingness of Ben Ali to quickly and severely repress public dissent. The threat of Islamist violence is used by the President and his party to justify a robust security apparatus (of which Ben Ali himself is a product), a threat made all too real by events in neighboring Algeria. Freedom of the press continues to be a fiction; during the buildup to the election, multiple journalists were attacked, arrested, and at least one French reporter was refused entry to the country following the publication of a series of articles in Le Monde critical of Ben Ali.

Perhaps more of interest to political scientists is the upcoming question of succession across North Africa. Ben Ali modified the electoral law to cap the maximum age of presidential candidates at 75; Ben Ali is currently 73, meaning he will be ineligible for reelection without further modification of the law. We have seen similar institutional modification in Egypt under Mubarak (who is 81). Algeria’s Bouteflika is 72 and Qaddafi is 67. Morocco’s Mohammed VI is the youngest of the Maghrebi rulers at 46. Although during the next ten years we will probably see a host of new faces at the head of North African states, it is worth remembering that the Arab world has too often looked to young new leaders with unfulfilled hopes of political change. Further, if scholars such as Jason Brownlee and Ellen Lust-Okar are correct, succession shouldn’t pose much of a problem for those regimes who have built up ruling party organizations and institutions that contain elite conflict and coordinate patronage for those willing to play ball.

Brownlee argues that elections in authoritarian regimes provide valuable information for gauging the strength of ruling coalitions and their ability to manipulate political outcomes. Unbelievable margins of victory can signal that the ruling party has completely penetrated political operations at multiple levels. Thus, it should be no surprise that Ben Ali and his RCD party captured nearly 90% of the vote. Although this represents nearly a 10% decline from 1999 results and a 5% decline from 2004 results, it remains to be seen if these results represent a slight decrease in the regime’s power or if, as Elias Muhanna pithily argues, dropping one’s margin of victory to a more believable figure is the latest trend in election-rigging.