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Elections in Tunisia: Let the Games begin

After months of waiting, the election date is finally in sight. As of this weekend political parties and individual candidates are officially aloud to campaign for their election to the Constitutional Council. Until 24 hours before the Election Day, October 23rd, the parties will do everything to convince the Tunisians that they are the best guarantee for a successful democratic transition and a rapid economic recovery.

 

11.000 candidates… for 217 seats!

At least, the 11.000 candidates will assure a pugnacious campaign. Tunisia is divided into 27 constituencies (+6 overseas) and in every district 1-10 representatives for the Council are to be elected, relative to the number of residents. The plurality of political parties, on which I elaborated in a previous post, have led to the creation of 1500 party lists with in total over 11.000 candidates, for 217 seats! Half of all candidates are women, set down by law to guarantee equal participation. A quarter of all candidates is younger than 35 years old.

The first days of the campaign were rather quiet. It seems like the parties have used the weekend to gain some forces: on Sunday afternoon, a day after the start of the campaign, only several parties had taken the effort to affix their campaign posters. As we have in Europe the advertisement panels, in Tunisia full entire street sides have been made available in each neighbourhood for the posters of plus 80 political parties. As you see in the picture hereunder, every party has been allocated its own part of the wall.

Campaign wall, offering place to 1 poster each, for approx. 80 political parties(!).

 

The question is whether Tunisia is actually ready for these elections. Overall, I think yes. In the past few months, people have been working tireless to get everything in order. The ballot boxes arrived this weekend (of a ship from Copenhagen). The electoral legislation was amended already some time ago, voters and candidates registered themselves, international election observers arrived and an ombudsman has been appointed. The president of the ISIE, the independent body responsible for the organization of the elections, declared once more that “this will be the first free election in Tunisia, in a free and transparent atmosphere”.

Inhabitants of the neighbourhood Cité Khalil, in the northern Banlieu of Tunis, discuss a set of folders they just received from a campaigning party.

 

Democracy vs. jobs

An even more important question is what simple Tunisian people will gain from these elections. Critics doubt the extent to which the next elections will improve the position of deprived Tunisians. This part of the population, which set in the revolution earlier this year and was the moving force for several months, has not seen any structural change. In spite of some emergency measures such as extra training and small allowances, for many the economic prospects are as desperate as ever. Now, everybody is talking about concepts such as ‘transitional justice’, decentralization and the separation of religion and politics… for the moment this is of no meaning at all for Tunisians who aim at economic prosperity. Much more relevant are

- a social security system

- employment (and associated foreign investments)

- redistribution of national benefits and burdens

- a favorable regional development policy

The paradox of this question is that above objectives cannot be accomplished on the short term and therefore, everyone has to be kept satisfied for the moment. A matter of Expectation Management, assuring that people remain patient and have an eye for the long term results of the current efforts. As I remarked earlier, the hectic phase Tunisia is going through is new for the Tunisians and creates quite some mutual distrust and agitation. These are factors which might undermine the transitional process.

EU – Tunisia Task Force

The EU tries to do its bit by expressing its support and trust in Tunisia. A quote of Bernardino Leon, the EU Special Representative for the South-Mediterranean region: “we, the international community, want the Tunisians to focus completely on their process of democratization. In the mean time, we will make sure that the Tunisian economy doesn’t suffer too many losses.

To fulfill this promise, the EU has set up a Task Force, in cooperation with the Tunisian authorities, to contribute to a fast economic recovery. The first meeting of the joint Task Force took place in Tunis last week and resulted in the presentation of a whole range of support programs. A follow up to this first meeting is planned for this week and for the weeks after the elections. Even more important, however, was the message of the Task Force’s conclusions: trust in a stable and prosperous Tunisia and full support from the EU, the member states and the European business community. This message has been followed live from every Tunisian living room, via live broadcasting and Facebook updates.

EU – Tunisia a Forced Task?

Although the EU is by far Tunisia’s most important partner, there is still some mistrust as well. It have been, amongst others, European countries which supported the Ben Ali regime for years and who turned a blind eye when Tunisia turned into a totalitarian dictatorship. This did not go unseen in Tunisia, and therefore Europe is often said to act only in its own interest. In addition, there are several subjects which the EU is being reproached for. Tunisians think, for example, that they deserve better access to the EU, for work or for leisure, as the European citizens are free to visit Tunisia as often as they like. Furthermore, the EU is blamed for its ambiguous rhetoric when it goes about the Palestine-question, which is a very sensitive issue here.

Therefore, the meetings with political party representatives, organized on a regular basis by the EU delegation, are often vivid. Because of the importance of the ties with Europe, no one actually speaks about an alienation from their traditional partner. Besides the extensive trade and investment relations, almost 1 million Tunisians live abroad in neighboring Europe. Keeping up the ties with Europe is thus in the first interest of the Tunisians. In spite of the mistrust from some parts of the society, the EU – Tunisia are far from a Forced Task, rather a ‘Conveniant Partnership’. And this is to both parties’ benefit, for the Tunisians because they need Europe for accumulation of knowledge and economic prosperity, and for the EU because a stable democracy in its neighborhood is a guarantee for security and safety at its borders.



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