Tunisia's flag and a man showing the victory sign (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Tunisia's First Free Elections

''Everybody Wants To Do Their Own Thing''

Tunisia was the cradle of the so-called Arab Spring, and it is the first country in the region to be holding free elections. But the road to democracy is not as straight as many Tunisians hoped it would be back in January. Sarah Mersch reports from Tunis

No one is complaining about lack of choice ahead of the Tunisian elections – rather about the impossibility of gaining a real overview of what's going on. Over 100 parties have been registered since the overthrow of the previous regime on 14th January, and around 1,700 electoral lists are standing in the 33 constituencies.

Campaigning has been going on since the beginning of October – under strict rules: each candidate can present his programme in a three-minute television spot, and each list presents its candidates in carefully marked, numbered squares on the walls of houses.

Wall with lists of the party's candidates (photo: DW)
Learning democracy from scratch: On 23rd October, some nine months after the country's ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, the people will be called upon to elect a constitutional assembly

​​There are no big posters or fancy TV spots, and the press has not been allowed to interview the candidates since the start of the campaign. Every party and every list should have the same chance to help build the new democratic Tunisia, without any distinctions due to their access to the media or their level of financial support.

All the same, many of the squares on the house walls are empty, since the smallest parties don't even have the money to buy the paper to print their lists on or the supporters to stick them up.

In the centre of Tunis, Amin is standing in front of a row of black squares, numbered from 1 to 79. That's the number of lists standing in his constituency, Tunis 1. He's a 24-year-old mathematics student, and in two weeks he'll be voting for the first time in his life. But he still doesn't know who to vote for.

"If I can't decide," says Amin with a shrug, "I guess I'll vote for Ennahdha." He doesn't actually have much sympathy with the moderate Islamist party, "but at least they're all honest: they were all in prison until the revolution. The other parties are full of former members of the RCD."

Everyone for himself

Many Tunisians think like Amin. No-one doubts that the Islamists will end up as the strongest group. Around a quarter of the seven million voters said in recent surveys that they'll vote for Ennahda (Renaissance). The two liberal-left parties, the PDP (Democratic Progress Party) and Etakatol (Democratic Forum for Work and Freedom) each get around 15 percent. The third of the established opposition parties from the time of Ben Ali, Ettajdid (Renewal) has joined with four other liberal-left parties to form an alliance, Al Qotb (Democratic Modern Pole).

Anti-RCD protest (photo: AP)
Political sea change: In the past, the governing party RCD ruled virtually on its own; now a completely new political landscape is emerging in Tunisia

​​Then there are many other smaller parties; currently there are altogether some 40 left-wing liberal parties in Tunisia. Many of them have very similar programmes, but, aside from Al Qotb, each of them is standing on its own.

According to the blogger and journalist Haythem El Mekki, "These splits between the parties are unfortunate, since the Left is historically strong and ought to be the most powerful force. But everyone wants to do his own thing." The best example of that is the PDP. "The party is completely caught up in the personality cult of its chairman, Nejib Chebbi, and refuses to join any coalition."

Beside the liberal left, there are around twenty parties whose leaders have emerged from the former ruling party. The best known is Al Moubadara (The Initiative) of Kamel Morjane, who was foreign minister in the last Ben Ali government. He's expected to win as much as 3 percent of the vote.

Fear of counterrevolution, not of Islamists

For the human rights activist Sihem Ben Sedrine, one of the best known faces in the fight against the Ben Ali system, parties like Al Moubadara are part of the counterrevolution which is now threatening Tunisia. She's convinced: "The people from the old regime, the secret services and the military are a danger for the revolution."

Ben Sedrine fears that, after the election, Tunisia could suffer an "Algerian scenario," with a covert military dictatorship. "I'm worried about the counterrevolution," she says. "Perhaps these forces will try to attack the polling stations on election day itself, in order to stop people from voting, so that insecurity will lead many to stay at home."

Both El Mekki and Ben Sedrine agree that the forces of the old regime are a bigger problem than the Islamists. As El Mekki says, "The problem isn't Ennahda, but the hysterical reaction provoked by the party." At least on paper, Ennahda presents itself as moderate; it even says that the existing Tunisian law which guarantees wide-ranging equality for women is something worth preserving.

The same faces as before

photo: BDZ/Erik Staschöfsky
Worried about the counterrevolution: Human rights activist Sihem Ben Sedrine fears that Tunisia could suffer an "Algerian scenario," with a covert military dictatorship

​​El Mekki, who presents a political talk show on television, thinks that the feared struggle between Islamists and secularists is mainly the result of Ben Ali's 23 years of dictatorship. "We have a population which has no political culture," he argues. "They don't even know what laicism is, and so they think: laicists are against the Islamists, so they must be against religion."

The conflict has also been encouraged by the media, even though most people in Tunisia have much more urgent problems, above all in the economic field. Truly radical, Salafist movements are too weak to destabilise the country. "We won't be turning back," El Mekki insists. "Civil society is far too strong for that and is paying too much attention to what is happening. We are not Iran or Egypt here." He's thoroughly optimistic about the elections.

But Ben Sedrine thinks there's a long way to go before the revolution is successfully concluded and Tunisia is truly the first genuine democracy in North Africa. "The biggest challenges are the transitional justice system, the interior ministry and the reform of the police apparatus," she says. The same people hold influential positions there as did before the 14th January.

When the judge Farhat Rajhi tried to clean out the security services when he was interior minister for a few weeks in spring, he was almost lynched by some of his staff, and was only just able to flee from his ministry. He was then dismissed without comment and replaced by Habib Essid, a Ben Ali loyalist. "As long as nothing changes in such areas," says Ben Sedrine with a sigh, "Tunisia will not be able to become a democratic state." But, she adds, the elections could put the country on the right road.

Sarah Mersch

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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