Tunisia’s election authority has proposed a parliamentary vote on Oct. 26 and the first round of presidential polls a month later, marking the final step towards full democracy in the cradle of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Tunisia’s often turbulent political transition began after the popular revolt that ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired revolutions across the region. The North African state has been run of late by aukbig caretaker government that saw through the adoption of a new constitution lauded as a model of democratic evolution in an unstable region.
Tunisia’s national assembly appointed an electoral council on Wednesday to oversee elections this year, a key step in the country’s transition to democracy three years after its “Arab Spring” uprising. Selecting the nine-member electoral council was a key part of an agreement to overcome months of political crisis between the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, and its secular opposition over how to shape the country’s young democracy. “Congratulations to the Tunisian people for the election of these nine members. It was a tough task, but we have overcome differences,” Meherzia Laabidi, deputy president of the assembly, said at the end of voting. Under the deal brokered late last year to end deadlock, Tunisia’s government plans to resign shortly and hand over power to a non-political caretaker cabinet that will govern until new elections later this year.
Tunisia was the first Arab country to have a pro-democracy uprising in the winter of 2010-2011, and now it is the first to have held an election. Tunisians took to the polls on October 23 to choose a constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s first democratic constitution and appointing a new transitional government. The elections were judged free and fair by a record number of domestic and foreign observers, testimony to the seriousness with which the interim government approached the poll. In the eyes of many observers, Tunisia is lighting the way forward where others – notably Egypt -are faltering.
In the days immediately after the January 14 departure of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years, the country’s future did not look so promising. Ben Ali’s former ministers attempted to provide continuity without popular legitimacy, the economy was a shambles, and protests and insecurity continued. It took three months for a government more representative of the revolution to be appointed, the former ruling party disbanded and the former regime elements sniping at passersby rounded up. The government, trade unions and major employers negotiated salary increases (generally of 10-15 percent), thus beginning to address the socio-economic grievances that were part of the uprising, notably in Tunisia’s poorer interior provinces, where mass protests against poverty and unemployment had taken place intermittently since at least 2008. With these tasks done, the path was cleared for the constituent assembly election, whose rules were hammered out between technocrats who had served under Ben Ali but were untainted by the worst of his abuses, and political forces that had to transform themselves quickly from underground and vanguard parties into mass-based organizations.
As Tunisians prepare to vote on Sunday in the first election of the Arab Spring, the parties and their supporters have ramped up a bitter debate over allegations about the influence of “dirty money” behind the scenes of the race. Liberals, facing an expected defeat by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, charge that it has leapt ahead with financial support from Persian Gulf allies. Some Islamists and residents of the impoverished interior, meanwhile, fault the liberals, saying they relied on money from the former dictator’s business elite. And all sides gawk at the singular spectacle of an expatriate businessman who made a fortune in Libyan oil and returned home after the revolution to spend much of it building a major political party.
In the first national election since the ouster of the strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, voters will choose an assembly that will govern the country while writing a new constitution. The vote is a bellwether for the Arab world, and the debate over the role of political spending is a case study of the forces at play here and around the region.