Campaigns and elections

Tunisia National Assembly Post-Election Report: So Far, So Good

Oct 23 '11

Continuing our series of election reports, we are pleased to welcome the following post-election report on today’s historic Tunisian elections from Professor Jason Brownlee of the University of Texas, Austin, the author of Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization. Brownlee, who is in Tunisia observing the elections, 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.

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Millions of Tunisians participated on Sunday in the Arab Spring’s “first competitive election.”:http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-10/23/c_131206984.htm Amid heavy and peaceful turnout, the voting process by late afternoon was moving smoothly toward a close. Popular expectations held that Ennahda (The Renaissance Party) would win a plurality in the 217-member National Constitutive Assembly (NCA), followed by three to four centrist and leftist parties with significant, smaller seat shares.

At polling stations in two contrasting districts—one a stronghold of Ennahda the other a bastion of anti-Ennahda sentiment—I heard a common refrain. Regardless of which party came in first, the process showed Tunisians had ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s “mafia state”:http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/01/23/a-dictator-dispatched.html and begun expressing their views without fear or intimidation. That process has been meticulously shepherded by officials of the “Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections (ISIE)”:http://www.isie.tn/Fr/accueil_46_3 who ensured Tunisians’ votes remained secret and secure. They also oversaw the obligatory inkwell in which voters dip a finger before receiving their ballot (see photo above). Of course, a free and fair election is not necessarily fast. One gentleman remarked that having more polling stations, and more monitors to cover them, would hasten the process in the future. For the most part, however, Tunisians standing in seemingly interminable lines did not seem to mind waiting two to four hours.

Fortunately the party that had earlier “warned of vote fraud,”:http://www.theage.com.au/world/tensions-mount-for-tunisian-poll-20111020-1ma6j.html Ennahda, reported little evidence of systematic abuse by 2pm. (Polls opened at 7am and were scheduled to close twelve hours later.) “So far, so good,” Ennahda spokesman Said Ferjani told foreign journalists who asked for his assessment. The behavior of Tunisians, he continued, was historic, matching the day’s epochal significance. While isolated infractions had occurred in surrounding neighborhoods, mostly involving illicit campaigning (either against Ennahda or, as I heard from another sources, in its favor), there were no signs of organized vote manipulation, especially inside polling stations.

Ferjani coyly refrained from estimating how well Ennahda would perform, but asserted the Islamic movement would exceed its own (closely held) expectations. Those hopes may be more modest than one might expect from the undisputed frontrunner. The closed list proportional voting system adopted by Tunisia’s political forces earlier this year tends to deflate seat representation by the highest vote getter and magnify the share of seats won by smaller parties. (Readers seeking a refresher on the “largest remainders” method and “Hare quota” for apportioning seats can find a clear illustration “here”:http://ahwatalkdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/electionscenerio.jpg .) The system is projected to make Ennahda’s representation in the Assembly significantly lower than its portion of the national vote. Meanwhile, lesser known lists may accrue far more seats than their vote share. The rules all but preclude Ennahda from winning a majority of seats and they presage a vigorous period of post-electoral coalition building.

Political scientist “Hamadi Redissi”:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/16/opinion/16redissi.html, who runs “L’Observatoire Tunisien de la Transition Démocratique”:http://www.observatoiretunisien.org/ speculated that the country could see an anti-Ennahda majority steering the NCA. Such a coalition would expectedly include the top centrist, center-left and left parties: Afek Tounes (AT), Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés (Ettakatol), Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP), and Pôle Démocratique Moderniste (PDM). Much will depend on how well Ennahda performs, added Redissi, and on the gap between Ennahda and the second strongest party. Others I spoke with foresaw the centrist parties vying among themselves to be Ennahda’s junior partner. Ferjani claimed that the PDP had made overtures that were nominally personal—sending hand written condolences over the death of one of Ennahda’s members—but which also implied an interest in political rapprochement. One leading daily, Al Maghreb, forecast Ennahda taking 20-25% of seats and the PDP getting 15-20%, results that would put a governing majority within their collective reach.

For the moment, the votes have yet to be tallied and Tunisians seem more interested in celebrating how far they have come in the past nine months, than in pondering the political wrangling of the weeks ahead. Pride and joy abound, as the people who dismantled a police state and galvanized a region nurture their young democracy.

[Photo credit: Ezequiel Scagnetti].