Tunisians will return to the polls on November 23 to choose a new president in the country’s first transparent election for a head of state. The vote comes just a month after parliamentary elections gave a nationalist, secular party, Nidaa Tounes, a mandate to form the next government. But for the 1 million Tunisian voters who live abroad, the obstacles to participation in that October parliamentary election were daunting. Only some 300,000 of them, or about 30 percent, managed to register, and then, only 36 percent of those made it to the polls. That is compared to the 68 percent of registered voters in Tunisia who cast their ballots. These figures are unlikely to improve for the presidential vote.
Observers at home and abroad have criticized the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) for its poor communication of deadlines and procedures. The mediocre participation rate and the anger of would-be voters—especially those living abroad—who were turned away at the polls will cut into the next government’s badly needed credibility. Nonetheless, Tunisia’s consensus-driven political process has moved the country from a deeply corrupt, one-party regime to writing a widely respected constitution and holding two transparent, if imperfect, elections.
Administering any national election process for voters abroad is always complicated, but in this case, the ISIE had only one month to organize voter registration after the interim legislature approved the timeline for elections on May 26. It opened registration on June 23, coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan and the summer holiday for students. Numbers flagged, so the ISIE extended the deadline twice to make it August 29. A million new voters signed up bringing the number registered to over 5 million out of an estimated 7 million eligible citizens.
The lack of communication was such that many Tunisians in the diaspora, acting on past experience, thought they could vote without registering. In elections to install a temporary government after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, Tunisians abroad voted by showing their national ID at the polling station on election day. Unfortunately, the list of voters compiled during that election was not incorporated into the voting registry for these elections. That effectively disenfranchised many of those who wanted to vote and had a history of voting. It is unlikely that this benefited one political party over another, but as one voter who drove six hours to his polling station, said the incompetence of the electoral body creates distrust.
In a press release issued after the parliamentary elections, the Carter Center sympathized with the tight deadlines imposed on the ISIE, but said the body suffered “from organizational and management issues, including a lack of a clear communication strategy with electoral stakeholders.” Local election monitoring organizations were less generous. Muraqibun, or observers in Arabic, called the number of registered voters “deficient,” but cautioned against adding voters to lists on election day—as occurred at some polling stations in France—as it could “affect the credibility of the polls.”
Another Tunisian election observation group Atide is soliciting complaints from Tunisians abroad, who were registered in the wrong polling station or who thought they registered but could not find their names on the registry. In its preliminary report on the parliamentary elections, Atide said, “ISIE did not exert enough effort to inform and educate citizens abroad of the importance of registering for the elections.”
The report adds that the website the ISIE set up to register voters essentially deprived many of their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote because it was so unreliable. Besides being online inconsistently, some voters could not register with their passports forcing ISIE to create an option for them to register with their national ID numbers. Many struggled to navigate the pages correctly and sometimes registered themselves in other locations accidently.
These local election observation organizations are an example of Tunisia’s active and demanding civil society that has pushed government institutions to be accountable and transparent. Another organization, Al Bawsala, for example, published the only comprehensive record of voting for the National Constituent Assembly, the interim legislative body, on its website. Even as voter registration left much to be desired, the work of these organizations is entrenching democratic practices in Tunisia’s political culture.
The results of the presidential election will put in place the final piece of the new government. Nidaa Tounes, with its plurality of seats in parliament, must form a coalition with other political parties and install a prime minister. The Tunisian press has registered some misunderstanding about the roles and responsibilities of the prime minister and the president. In a major change since the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, the president’s role is limited to foreign policy and security. This leaves the prime minister, who answers to the parliament, in charge of domestic policies. This division of responsibilities aims to check the power of any single figure, but it may be ineffective if Nidaa Tounes’s candidate for president, Beji Caid Essebsi, wins.
However, the field is wide open for presidential candidates. While Nidaa Tounes has demonstrated that its call for stability and a secular government has broad appeal, many voters will be wary of installing a single party into both the legislative and executive branches of government. Other contenders are Slim Riahi, a businessman, owner of a popular soccer team, and founder of the Free Patriotic Union, which won the third most number of seats in parliament. Even Hamma Hammami, a leftist activist and virulent critic of the old regime, is campaigning hard and may win a substantial number of votes. The current president and human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, is also still in the running. A runoff vote will likely be scheduled between the two candidates who earn the most votes, as the winner must take more than 50 percent of ballots cast.
Compared to neighboring Libya, where a renewed civil war is brewing, and Egypt, which is run by a former general who holds both executive and legislative powers, Tunisia’s effort to register voters and hold transparent elections is remarkable. Nonetheless, old networks of power remain strong, a fact that does not escape voters. The next government will need to work hard to win and keep the confidence of all Tunisians. Unfortunately, that includes the some 700,000 Tunisians living abroad who did not register before the deadline in August and will be barred from voting in this historic election.