Analysis Presidential Elections in Tunisia

Hopes Dashed for Democracy and a Civil Society

The recent presidential elections in Tunisia shed light on the deplorable state of democracy in that country and the regime's all-powerful control apparatus. A post-election report and analysis by Sihem Bensedrine

photo: Reporters without Frontiers
Sihem Bensedrine

​​The Denmark NGO known as "International Media Support" (IMS) recently presented its documentation of media reporting on the parliamentary and presidential elections in Tunisia in October 2004. The purpose of the study was to evaluate the behavior of the media during the campaign phase.

Applying internationally recognized standards for qualitative and quantitative analysis, IMS came to the conclusion that the reporting had been very one-sided, overwhelmingly favoring President Ben Ali and his party, Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD): "President Ben Ali was always the focus of reporting on the elections."

Media as government mouthpiece

"The audio-visual media devoted an average of 77% of their broadcasting time to the current president, while in the print media the ratio was an enormous 92%," the study revealed. Journalists were subject to strict controls and censorship: "The journalists surveyed explained that they were not allowed to use any information coming from the opposition parties, since they were viewed as too radical. Criticism of the government was also taboo."

"The government flagrantly misused the resources and connections at its disposal to influence the content of election reporting for its own ends. The state media by no means fulfilled its duty with regard to the fundamental right of every citizen making a decision at the voting booth to have access to balanced and unbiased information on the available alternatives and on topics of general national interest."

Instead, the majority of the media slavishly put themselves at the service of the party in power, at the cost of democracy and the general public interest. Seen in the context of international standards, the failure of the media could be regarded as a sign of the sorry state of Tunisia's political system, the report concludes.

Manipulation of votes reminiscent of Ukrainian model

The report deals only with one narrowly defined aspect of the election process. However, since the elections took place in the absence of international observers, this study is the only witness to the monopolization of political space by Ben Ali and his party, attested to by independent international experts.

This monopoly is the only possible explanation for the almost "Soviet" election results: the current president received 94.49% of the votes. It's no wonder that, in a recent interview with Agence France Presse (AFP), Thijs Berman, Dutch member of the European Parliament and an international observer at the recent Ukrainian elections, compared the massive falsifications there with the election in Tunisia.

But Ben Ali did not even need to falsify the election results to stay in power. Behind the façade of political pluralism, a smoothly running machine prevents anyone else from gaining political ground, not only through total control of the media, but also by keeping a firm grip on all institutional means that might allow others access to the public (freedom of assembly, party freedom, the right to demonstrate peacefully).

This permits the regime to put up an insurmountable barrier against any possible alternative election candidates, robbing them of a voice. "In Tunisia, all roads lead to Ben Ali," commented one young woman, disappointed with the outcome of the election.

Massive repression of the opposition

The argument that Ben Ali himself puts forward to justify his "overwhelming victory" is the weakness of the opposition.

"But how should a peaceful opposition evolve if it is denied the right to voice its opinions, to assemble, or to make use of public funds to reach the people? And how is it supposed to develop when followers of the opposition parties are persecuted? Has there ever been a totalitarian regime that allowed a peaceful, democratic alternative to emerge?" complains Khalil Ezzaouia, one of the leaders of the Forum Démocratique pour le Travail et les Libertés (FDTL), a legally recognized party. The FDTL had called for a boycott of the elections, and police surrounded its campaign office on the night before the elections because the Tunisian branch of Attac had been invited to a meeting there.

Just one month after Ben Ali's "plebiscite" (to use the words of the government-friendly newspaper "La Presse"), another glaring example of this politics of encapsulation could be observed when the police used violence to break up an assembly called together by the Ligue Tunesienne de Droits de l'Homme (LTDH) in Kairouan on November 28.

Representatives of civil society, along with the political parties, had been invited to a discussion of Tunisian voting rights. A huge police force not only surrounded the headquarters of the LTDH, where the meeting was to take place, but had also blocked all streets leading to the city. Several participants were stopped on the street on their way there and prevented from entering the city.

Those who had already been able to make their way to the meeting venue were prevented by the police from entering the building before being violently dispersed.

"Several people were subjected to rough handling, including being kicked by policemen," the "Observatoire pour la Protection des Défenseurs des Droits de l'Homme" reported indignantly in an open letter to President Ben Ali published on December 2. The letter concludes: "The Observatoire would like to express its alarm at the extreme intimidation of peaceful citizens and the restrictions on their right to assemble."

With his manipulation of the constitution in May 2002, in order to allow the president, in office now for 17 years, to procure his fourth mandate, Ben Ali has given himself unlimited power in this republic without institutions.

Most of the Tunisians who refused to vote did so because they found showing up at the polls would have been futile. After all, for them the elections are nothing more than a farce, initiated by the Minister of the Interior, the great demiurge behind the whole operation. Upon the closing of the polls, the minister simply allotted the president the percentage of votes that a fortune teller had assured him would be most auspicious, while the few percentage points left over were distributed among his rivals – according to their closeness to the present regime.

Reserved reactions abroad

The only thing Ben Ali and Europe are interested in is to preserve the semblance of a democratic system. And the only reason to do so is to appear above reproach in the eyes of Western partners who want to have nothing to do with all too blatant dictatorships.

This perhaps also explains why the international organizations that otherwise regularly send their observers around to keep an eye on elections, as was the case recently in Rumania, the USA, Namibia and the Ukraine, were notably absent in Tunisia.

European reactions (in particular that of France) to the course of the elections on October 24 were accommodating. President Chirac congratulated Ben Ali and assured him his "personal encouragement to deepen our work together and to mutually devote our energies to strengthening the Europe-Mediterranean partnership."

More nuanced, but in the same tone of voice, the European Union acknowledged the presidency by stating "that the citizens had a choice between several candidates," while at the same time remarking that "the way the election campaigns were carried out leading up to October 24 did not, all things considered, give every candidate an equal chance. In principle, greater freedom of opinion and a more liberal party system would contribute to consolidating the progress that has already been made on the path to an open and representative multiparty democracy."

The criticism coming from the American administration was more blunt: "These elections were characterized by 'severe shortcomings,'" remarked an officer for the State Department. He presumed that "there is no political realm that would allow a significant opposition true participation in the process. There are restrictions on freedom of opinion, on opportunities for independent political action, on free access to the media; and finally there is also intimidation and harassment."

This officer insisted on remaining anonymous, however. The official White House speaker was vaguer in his assessment, while still not being able to conceal his reservations: "We are concerned that Tunisia has fallen short of its full potential," the Deputy Spokesman for the Department of State, Adam Ereli, stated on October 25.

But after all, Tunisia is not the Ukraine! And that is exactly how the Tunisian opposition has understood the message: "Instead of the right to freely determine who should rule their country, the Tunisians must settle for the brand of 'political stability' that is enforced with an iron hand by their 'partner' Ben Ali."

Hopes dashed for democracy and a civil society

"We have had to postpone every hope of democratization." There is one voice that diverges from the general tenor of the reactions to the elections, coming from the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights, whose Chairwoman, Hélène Flautre, announced:

"This process, which got off on the wrong foot from the start, damages the credibility of the action plan that was negotiated within the scope of neighborly policy and in accordance with Article 2 of the Association Agreement."

The Tunisian opposition can hardly hide its bitterness: "Now that the curtain has fallen on these 'non-elections,' there can no longer be any doubt that the manipulation of the constitution that made them possible, as well as the way in which they were conducted and their outcome not only further undermines the legitimacy of the ruling power, but has also deepened the gulf between the regime and society," declared Mustafa Ben Jaafar, General Secretary of the FDTL.

In a joint statement, four of the opposition parties confirmed: "The election results are the logical consequence of the manipulation of the constitution, which gives the president an incontestable lifelong advantage, of the exclusion of alternative political forces from public life, of a lack of true freedom and of an independent judiciary, and of a government that is firmly in the hands of one party. In short: the outcome of the election is a sign of the lack of the most fundamental elements of fair and transparent political competition."

The presidential candidate backed by the Initiative Démocratique, Mohammed Ali Halouani, who acted as a monkey wrench in the works of the official election machinery by applying to the constitutional court for an annulment based on serious violations of voting rights and massive falsification, received against all probability only 0.95% of the votes. He declared:

"This year's elections represent a forfeited opportunity for Tunisia [...] They served the purposes of reward and repression: reward for the obedient, repression for the opposition. This has grave consequences for the future of Tunisia: far-reaching consequences for the country's stability. The gulf between the hopes and expectations of the people and the realities of the political system has taken on dangerous dimensions."

The election results do indeed menace the illusion of stability in Tunisia, because by blocking all paths to peaceful confrontation, Ben Ali has paved the way for every conceivable kind of violent extremist: they are the only ones who would be in a position to fill a potential power vacuum in the country's leadership.

Sihem Bensedrine

© Qantara.de 2004

Sihem Bensedrine is a founding member and spokesperson of the "National Council for Freedom" in Tunisia, general secretary of the "Observatory for Freedom of the Press," and editor-in-chief of the online magazine "Kalima," which is prohibited in Tunisia.

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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