Though there are pitfalls, Tunisia’s October 23 election is poised to succeed. Voters will choose representatives for a constituent assembly tasked with re-writing the constitution, and the new body will enjoy a level of legitimacy not seen in generations. Although Tunisians and the world are fixated on the moderate Islamist party, al-Nahda, and how high it will rise, the success or failure of the transition to democracy depends less on who wins the election and more on the path taken by the constituent assembly after it is created.
Tunisia is discovering deep divisions within its society, divisions that were unseen or suppressed under the crushing weight of the Ben Ali regime. When the former president fled a wave of popular protests on January 14, his absence allowed competing values to surface. Conservative religious identities have reasserted themselves, alarming a secular, coastal elite. Besides the religious question, the interior regions of Tunisia – long neglected – demand greater investment and a larger voice. Politicians are distant from citizens: A recent Al Maghreb poll found less public confidence in political parties than in the army, the police, the media, and even the justice system.
“The fastest path to power for any political hopeful, scrupulous or not, is through the voting booth.”
Yet across all actors, there is an overwhelming unity around the upcoming elections. Scruffy protesters camped out in the capital’s Human Rights Park last July demanding that the date of the October 23 election be respected. Major political leaders, including al-Nahda and their largest secular-leaning rival, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), have sounded the same refrain: The election must be a success and must be held as planned without further delay. Media and social media agree. The interim government, led by Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, balked at the original election date of July 24, but after rescheduling, they are as adamant as anyone regarding October 23. The National Army, easy to forget but vital nonetheless, says little in public except that it will support and defend the October 23 election.
Statements must be proven in action rather than with words, but the power of such rhetorical unity should not be underestimated. Since January 14, Tunisia has been a country in constant negotiation between shaky government authority and a simmering street. With public rhetoric committed to the election, the fastest path to power for any political hopeful, scrupulous or not, is through the voting booth.
The electoral system chosen for the constituent assembly helps guarantee that no major faction will want to challenge the results. Under the proportional list voting system, parties register lists of candidates in each electoral district, equal in number to the seats allocated to the district. Seats are allocated based on the percentage of the district vote each candidate list receives. These seats are first assigned to the head candidate on the list, proceeding to the second- and third-listed names, as far down as the case requires. The result is broad representation shared between many parties, not just regionally but within districts. The leaders of the most popular parties should win their seats easily because they are first on their candidate lists, and once these major players have their hands in the pot, it is in their interest to uphold the constituent assembly’s legitimacy.