Tunisians are preparing for the election of a 218 members constituent assembly on October 23, 2011. This assembly’s task will be crucial: prepare and vote the new constitution of the second republic of Tunisia, appoint a new government, and legislate. Contrary to the Egyptians, they have decided not to amend their constitution before proceeding to elect a new legislative assembly. The old Tunisian Constitution was suspended on March 23, and the current interim government is governing by way of decrees. Headed by Kamel Jendoubi, a long time opponent to Ben Ali’s regime who was president of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights, a High Independent Committee for the Elections is organizing the electoral process (http://www.isie.tn/). The old practice of organizing the election through the Ministry of Interior –a procedure borrowed from French electoral tradition—has ended. The registration process began on July 1 and will end on August 2, unless the deadline is changed. Overall 7.5 million voters, Tunisian men and women 18 or older, are expected to register.
In spite of a strong media campaign under the slogan uqayyit bish tqayyid: “it is time to register” (see the clips at http://www.isie.tn/) appealing to all walks of Tunisian society, the registration process has been disappointingly slow, which has alarmed the Committee as well as many Tunisians and foreign observers. To this day (July 29), 4 days before the official end of the registration process, only 16% of the voters have registered, approximately 1,350 000 Tunisians. The Committee’s Facebook page provides the new numbers everyday at http://www.facebook.com/isietn?sk=app_100499533382576.
How is it possible that after massively rising up against authoritarianism, screaming “dégage!” and being obeyed by their dictator, who left the country on January 14, 2011, Tunisians seem to lack enthusiasm toward the ballot box? Whereas women were present in the demonstrations against the regime and the new electoral law makes gender parity on electoral lists compulsory, female participation in the registration process is only 20%. The revolution was said to be the “youth revolution,” but the most represented age group among registered voters so far is the 40-50 years old.
How can we explain this paradox? Didn’t Tunisians topple down their president to be able to vote democratically in a transparent and truly competitive process after more than 50 years of authoritarianism during which no democratic electoral process ever took place? Or are we already in a situation not unlike that of liberal democracies plagued with voters disaffection?
There are several answers to this question, from the technical to the political. To begin with, the registration process was slow to start, because of technical malfunctions in many registration offices. However, if there are stories of technical faults in the registration process, many offices –there are more than 400 scattered on the national territory—have remained almost empty. This means that the main reason for the disaffection is political: to register is in itself a vote of confidence in the interim government and in the transition process. There is, indeed, a crisis of confidence in Tunisia today. The departure of Ben Ali has propelled institutional and political reforms, but for many, they are insufficient. On the bright side, the Constitutional Democratic Rally –the ruling party before the revolution—has been dissolved by a court decision on March 9, political prisoners have been freed, new electoral and press laws have been voted, and political parties have been authorized. However, the justice system is slow to judge those responsible of more than 200 deaths during the protests. On the other hand, Ben Ali’s trials have been too speedy for the truth about the responsibilities of repression before and after December 17, 2010 to be revealed publicly. There is still deep popular distrust of the police and of the ministry of Interior more generally. The interim government, which was not elected, has little legitimacy and therefore is not ready to make in depth reforms. The economic situation is worsening, with an economic growth close to zero, increasing unemployment and higher inflation, a few days before the start of the month of Ramadan, a month during which Tunisians spend more and produce less.
At the level of the electoral process, Tunisians are not sure for which parties to vote. The partisan scene is crowded: more than 100 parties have been formed and authorized, and it is not easy to differentiate between them ideologically or even in terms of political programs, since not many of them have published their political platforms. According to a poll released by 3C Etudes on July 6, 67% of voters do not know for which list they will vote. The old guard is also back in newly formed political parties, which make Tunisians think that the representatives of the old political system will not disappear after the elections: it also brings back memories of the sham elections that took place under Ben Ali. Parties spend time fighting about cultural questions (religion and tradition vs. secularism) but do not present clear solutions to the disastrous economic situation that is impacting Tunisians in their everyday life. They are currently working on strategic alliances that would allow them to be better represented in the future assembly, but do not seem to be responding to the most pressing questions raised by future voters: what type of constitution will the parties support and how will they improve Tunisians’ daily lives if they govern. Democracy implies more than merely free and transparent elections. It also involves a promise of equal economic and political opportunities from which the majority of Tunisians was barred. This lack of access to education, the job market, and the political arena was particularly acute for the youth and particularly for women, the segments of the population who are currently showing the least enthusiasm for the registration process. If Tunisians seem to lack enthusiasm for the registration process, it is not because they lack political awareness. They have shown to the world how politically aware they were when they continuously demonstrated after December 17, 2010, leading to the ousting of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011. It is not that they do not want democracy: they want it, but they are not convinced that this is it.