The birthplace of the Arab Spring is sometimes described as the only democratic nation in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to retain this distinction and uphold its new constitution, however, a legitimate voting process needs to be held this year.
After a long debate between Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party over procedural issues (it is lobbying to hold legislative elections first), and the opposition’s preference (to hold the presidential vote first), the National Constituent Assembly has finally agreed: parliamentary elections will be held on October 26 this year, and the vote for a president on November 23, leaving time for a second round of voting, if need be, before the year ends.
So far, so good, but then began a hectic period for the country’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) in its fight against the clock. In the period of the month leading up to 22 July, new voters needed to register to vote. In a push to increase the number of registrations the ISIE has now announced that a second registration period will be held from August 5 to August 26. People who voted in the last elections in 2011 did not need to re-register, except for those among them allowed to vote at the last minute, principally to help boost official figures of the final turnout.
“There are many who think that relatively few of Tunisia’s 7.5 million potential voters will come out”
Confusing? Yes. Are people aware of the procedures and deadline? No, according to Raouf Boutara, vice-president of the Association Tunisienne pour l’integrite et la democratie des elections (ATIDE), which is monitoring the electoral process. Unlike voter registration in 2011—shortly after the Middle East’s “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia—if you don’t register ahead of time for these elections, you will not be allowed to vote at all.
There are many who think that relatively few of Tunisia’s 7.5 million potential voters will come out to cast their ballot this time. In Tunisia’s last—and first—real democratic election, four million voters were registered. “If we can register the roughly 500,000 people who voted last time, but never registered, and the 500,000 youth who were not 18 years old at the time, it would mean one million additional registrations,” Boutara said, adding this was a realistic goal. Voter registration was initially slow. “The start was really bad,” explained Hejer Sdiri, who works for Atide campaigning on the ground in the Tunisian suburb Ben Arous. “The ISIE was badly prepared, many of the workers didn’t even know where the registration offices were situated.”
Together with other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the ISIE, Atide held an emergency meeting at which it was decided to conduct an SMS awareness campaign. “We have 12 million mobile lines (in the country),” explained Boutara, enthusiastically, “so we went to see our three telecom operators and sent an SMS to each and every phone number.” He proudly displayed the SMS he himself had received as a result.
Another initiative—targeting the youth—was held the same day as the World Cup Final. “We declared Sunday 13 July a National Voter Registration Day,” said Achref Aouadi, founder of I Watch, a youth NGO trying to raise electoral awareness. Their objective was to create momentum with slogans such as “Go register while you watch the final!” The campaign went viral on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
It also created debate, with some young people arguing that none of the parties represented them, and others disagreeing, declaring that voting was not just a citizen’s right but their duty, pleading with people to register.
“The ISIE was badly prepared, many of the workers didn’t even know where the registration offices were situated”
Aouadi said the July deadline for voter registration, has made this electoral process more of a challenge for Tunisia’s electorate “because if you don’t register now, you are done, out.”
But many of Tunisia’s youth don’t care: they have lost faith in the country’s politicians. “As we are young, we know that our peers will boycott the elections,” said Aouadi. To try reaching out to the youth, he suggested using tools that appealed to the younger generation, such as social media, games and apps. “I would also use (the month of) Ramadan as a platform, as all Tunisians are out on the streets.”
In urban areas it would be easier to reach out to people, but in the countryside, it would get more difficult as, “to reach the men, you just go to the cafés, but the women are harder, you need a door to door operation but that takes time,” he said.
Time Tunisia didn’t have.
Besides boosting voter registration Boutara’s biggest concern was security. “My biggest worry are the factors we cannot control,” he said, “such as a terrorist act against, for example, a polling station. Then the election is done.”
Since the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, this small Mediterranean country has driven a bumpy road towards democratic stability, facing a number of security threats from radical religious fractions. How the country is able to handle its next elections could prove an important indicator of how democratic its future might be.
Raouf Boutara at ATIDE’s head office in the Tunis suburb Berges Du Lac
Originally published on Christine’s blog at the World Bank.