Tunisia has a new Facebook status: “Je me suis inscrit, je vote” (I am registered, and I vote). More than 10,000 people have joined the Facebook page of the national elections commission, which opened voter registration on July 11. Ninety-five percent of Tunisians surveyed in May planned to vote for the 218-member constituent assembly that will rewrite the republic’s constitution. But despite the enthusiasm, challenges remain that threaten the credibility of the elections.
Elections officials have encountered major problems since the first day, and Tunisians have been told very little about how the process will work. Decisions appear only inconsistently on the elections commission’s website, in state media, and on Facebook. In the initial stages of registration, many centers did not have access to the national ID database and were unable to update voters’ addresses as listed on their identification cards. And while the login issue was addressed within a day, poor public outreach has continued to undermine the process; many Tunisians still do not know that registration is even open. Additionally, voters have no assigned polling centers, making it impossible for elections officials to know exactly how many ballot papers to have available. The government also needs to find a way to prevent voters from voting more than once at different polling stations; a complete voter register will not be published prior to election day. Nervous about these challenges and the low registration turnout thus far, the elections commission announced on July 15 through its Facebook page that registration was no longer required for domestic voters. Yet even this was unclear; the language of the announcement is fairly technical and confusing to voters unfamiliar with the difference between “active” and “passive” registration processes.
Additionally, the High Independent Elections Commission (ISIE)—comprised of 14 jurists and activists—has failed to swiftly address important logistical considerations regarding the elections calendar and voter registration procedures. As a result, on the eve of voter registration in mid-July, the transitional government dismissed the Commission’s administrative staff and reduced the Commission to a “symbolic authority,” while establishing a new nine-member “Liaison Committee” in its place to assume control of logistics. This organizational shuffle has resulted in the interior ministry (which ran former President Zine Abidine Ben Ali’s corrupt elections) assuming a greater leadership role in the new electoral administration; three directors general from the interior ministry make up the committee’s senior leadership. And while representatives from the prime minister’s office and the finance, foreign, and information ministries round out the commission (chaired by Ridha Belhadj, a former deputy of the interim prime minister recently dubbed “Mr. Elections” by Leaders, a local magazine), some wonder what exactly about the elections process has changed if Ben Ali lieutenants are still in charge.
In rural districts, where Internet access is rare and 30 percent of the voting-age population is illiterate (according to data from the 2004 census), these combined problems of poor public outreach, inefficient registration, and government mismanagement multiply. Nationally, a lower voter turnout could leave the constituent assembly’s legitimacy open to criticism, especially from powerful groups such as al-Nahda. The popular Islamist party has not hesitated to question the government’s legitimacy and has already withdrawn support from the High Commission for the Fulfillment of Revolutionary Goals, following its postponement of the voting date from July to October. Confusion in the rural districts also might encourage the party to use election disputes to distance themselves from the constituent assembly, which would prove devastating to the assembly’s credibility and further highlight the need for effective voter education campaigns.
Beyond the credibility of the elections, the constituent assembly will face other problems in satisfying the electorate. According to a May poll, fewer than half of Tunisians correctly identified the upcoming vote will be for a constituent assembly—and nearly a quarter expected to elect a president. It is difficult to predict how misinformed Tunisians will react when they learn that electing an executive is still a year off, especially when they look to Egypt, which expects hold its own presidential elections around the same time as Tunisia’s legislative elections. Even among those conscious of the political landscape, voters have expectations that go beyond drafting a constitution; after conducting 12 focus groups across the country, the National Democratic Institute reported in July that respondents wanted for the assembly to focus largely on creating jobs as well as “youth infrastructure, water, better standards of living, and improved conditions for the poor.” Most did not mention constitutional reform—the actual task of the assembly to be elected.
U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe called Tunisia a “vanguard of democracy” during his July 18 visit, and expectations are high for this progenitor of the Arab Spring. Although it is not surprising that Tunisia is encountering problems in its transition to democracy—none of which is insurmountable and are perhaps best described as democratic “growing pains”—what is troublesome is that the government is not adequately addressing them. Tunisia has an excellent infrastructure and a $30 million budget for elections, yet the Liaison Committee does not communicate at all with the public, and the Commission’s Facebook page serves as its pressroom. With the voter registration period set to close on August 2, disturbingly little progress has been made. We know that revolutions can topple dictators; the Tunisian elections will test whether they can build democracies.
Duncan Pickard is an MA candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Correction: an earlier verion of this article printed the close of voter registration as August 12. It closes August 2.