Tunisia will hold presidential and legislative elections on October 25, the fifth elections since Zein el Abidine Ben Ali took power in 1987 after dismissing as legally incompetent Habib Bourguiba, who had been Tunisia’s president since the republic was declared in July 1957.  The Ben Ali regime has tried to add a type of electoral legitimacy to a closed political system centered on individual power and backed by the hegemony of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).  

The current regime inherited a system in which the presidential and legislative elections were held concurrently in a single round to be won by a simple majority of votes, which facilitated the absolute monopoly of power until 1989.  Furthermore, the prerequisites for presidential candidacy were biased. Since then, the Ben Ali regime has introduced some changes to the parliamentary election law and the process for nominating presidential candidates. The former required changing the electoral system. Since 1994 it has been a dual system, granting 75 per cent of seats to the party that attains a simple majority in the elections and 25 per cent to the other parties based on their share of the votes. In the current elections, this will amount to 161 seats for a single party—undoubtedly the RCD—and 53 seats for all other parties combined.  

This system allows for an appearance of pluralism in the Chamber of Deputies without threatening the ruling party’s hegemony. The opposition seats, meanwhile, are still divided among competing parties, whether pro or anti-government, which are essentially chosen by the authorities. In the upcoming round, there are nine parties vying for seats: six of them pro-government (the RCD, the Popular Unity Party, the Movement of Socialist Democrats, the Unionist Democratic Union, the Social Liberal Party, and the Green Party for Progress) and three opposition (the leftist Movement for Renewal, the liberal Progressive Democratic Party, and the social-liberal Democratic Forum for Freedoms and Labor). There is no legal Islamist party and thus no Islamist participation in the elections.  

Regarding the presidential race, a constitutional amendment approved in July 2008 stipulates that the head of any political party who has been in his position at least two years may run. (Before 2008, the constitution required any candidate to obtain endorsements from 30 members of the Chamber of Deputies or mayors, a goal that was practically unattainable for opposition candidates.) For this year’s election, the two-year stipulation rules out all but three candidates aside from Ben Ali. The most important is Ahmed Brahim, Secretary General of the Movement for Renewal, who is trying to run a serious campaign. The other two candidates--Mohamed Bouchiha of the Popular Unity Party and Ahmed Inoubli of the Unionist Democratic Union--are only in the elections to show (according to them) their support for the democratic course. The Constitutional Court rejected the candidacy of Mustafa Ben Jaafar of the Democratic Forum for Freedoms and Labor on September 27 because it ruled that he did not meet the two year rule.

Partisan Oversight

The current electoral model, which has been in place since the electoral code was issued in 1969, is now in the spotlight. This system transforms political competition into an administrative process wherein the Interior Ministry pulls all the strings throughout all stages of the elections, from registering voters to announcing the results. Unlike in liberal electoral systems, the legal code does not even explicitly outlaw electoral fraud. The ruling party candidate also is free to exploit the government monopoly over the audio-visual media, although a recent change in law requires the Supreme Council for Communications to preview all campaign ads. An opposition proposal to create an independent electoral commission fell on deaf ears. Ben Ali created a commission during his 1999 run for re-election, but its neutrality is compromised by the fact that its members are presidential appointees and its mandate limited to making observations rather than decisions.

Present and Future Stakes

In some ways, the Tunisian regime is little different from its counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world. The country is distinguished, however, by a dynamic economy based on domestic production and human capital unlike Arab rentier economies essentially dependent on oil income. Tunisia has not been deeply affected by the global financial crisis, although its annual GDP growth rate has been gradually slipping over the past 20 years, from 6 per cent to an average of 4-5 per cent more recently. Equality between men and women, in addition to a sizeable middle class, generally help the state to preserve social balance and comfortably keep its grip on civil society. Tunisia also stands out politically in the Arab world for its stability, which can be credited to the benefits of the corporate state. Since independence in 1956, there has been an enduring alliance among the ruling party, professional syndicates (industrial workers, artisans, and farmers), and women’s organizations that effectively closes out any potential competition.

Thus it is inevitable that Ben Ali will win another term, but that does not mean the elections are without significance. First, a strong desire for greater freedom and for real rather than cosmetic change might allow the opposition to push back red lines and expand the margins of freedom. Second, as is the case in other Arab republics, Tunisia is running up against complications with succession at the top of the power pyramid. The Tunisian constitution does not allow the 73-year-old Ben Ali to run again for the presidency after this term, the maximum age being 75 years. This obstacle will be pivotal in reshuffling the political deck in Tunisia, raising the question of whether the regime will succeed once again in reinventing itself.

Hamadi Redissi is a political science professor at the University of Tunis.  Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.