On Sunday, October 26, Tunisia held its first democratic parliamentary elections, which have been declared free and fair by local and international observers alike and whose results have been accepted by all political parties that participated. I had the honor of serving as one of the international observers deployed by the Carter Center and was based in Kasserine, one of the poorest governorates in Tunisia.
Kasserine is flanked by three mountains near the Algerian border, including the notorious Mount Chaambi, which has witnessed a series of clashes between armed Islamists and the Tunisian security services since 2012. The shadow of security concerns loomed large during the election period.
Two days before the elections, the Tunisian anti-terrorist brigade (BAT) raided a house in the governorate of Manouba near Tunis. One security officer and six suspected terrorists, five of them female, were killed in the operation. The Ministry of Interior announced that the group had been planning to join jihadist organizations in Syria. The aftermath of the raid saw stepped-up security measures all over Tunisia, particularly in precarious areas such as Kasserine.
As the elections loomed the mood was optimistic and defiant, but cautious. The Tunisian government knew very well that any terrorist attack during the elections would have a devastating impact not only on voter participation but also, more importantly, on trust in government institutions and the democratization process.
Since the revolution of 2011, Tunisia has suffered significant downturns in terms of its economy and security. The tourism sector has been badly hit, inflation is increasing, and unemployment rates are soaring. Meanwhile, Salafist jihadists have assassinated two leftist politicians. They have also engaged in a series of attacks in Tunisian cities as well as with the security services, including clashes between the police and the terrorist-designated group Ansar al-Sharia in the Mount Chaambi area.
During the three years leading up to the 2014 elections, many Tunisians expressed disappointment with the performance of the government and some argued that the 2014 elections would have no impact on their daily lives. A low voter turnout was expected, which the two leading political parties, Islamist Ennahda and secular Nidaa Tounes, worked to prevent by organizing intensive campaigns across the country. Despite their political differences, both parties recognized that restoring trust in government institutions would be crucial for maintaining their own legitimacy following the elections.
Vote Counting to the Sound of Bombings
In the days before the elections in Kasserine, heightened security measures saw the army deployed all over the governorate, with additional troops sent in from outside Kasserine to boost the capacity of the security services in the area. Remarkable coordination was witnessed between the military, the police, and the local government, as the latter provided logistical support and shelter to army troops while the army protected not just the polling centers but also the distribution of polling material.
The deputy governor of Kasserine as well as the local coordinator for the Independent Regional Authority for Elections (IRIE), the regional commission that assisted in administering the elections, said that their biggest concern was a land-mine attack organized by terrorists against army convoys, because many of the governorate’s roads are unpaved and therefore vulnerable to the planting of mines. There was less concern about terrorist attacks on polling centers.
Consequently, the military engaged in a series of preemptive strikes against potential terrorist hideouts in Mount Chaambi both before and on the evening of election day in an attempt at “showing the terrorists that the government is present,” as the deputy governor put it. Around 9 p.m. on Sunday, as I was observing one polling center in the middle of the city of Kasserine, vote counting was conducted to the sound of bombings in the mountain.
The terrorist threat did have a small impact on the elections in Kasserine because it changed the logistical arrangements that had been planned by the government. The original plan was for election material to be distributed by the army to polling centers on the morning of the day before the elections, a Saturday. However, three days before the elections it was decided that the material would not be sent from the IRIE headquarters in Kasserine to the polling centers directly. Rather, it would be kept overnight on army bases or in other safe locations and distributed to polling centers early in the morning on Sunday.
This arrangement caused delays at a number of polling centers, which did not receive the election material in time for the official opening of the centers to voters at 7 a.m. In one polling station in the city of Jadaleyan, the material did not arrive until noon, causing anger among the local residents who had arrived at the station in the early morning to cast their votes.
A Landmark in Tunisian History
The election day went largely smoothly otherwise. A sense of pride and jubilation was felt in the polling centers I visited. International observers were welcomed and allowed to observe freely. There was remarkable coordination between the local government, the military, and civil society organizations, which had deployed thousands of Tunisian citizens to act as local observers. Security measures by the local government and army continued throughout the day until all ballot boxes eventually arrived safely at the tabulation center late on Sunday night. Participation in the elections was higher than originally expected, at more than 60 percent of registered voters.
The election results were declared valid with one exception. In three out of the twelve polling stations I observed in Kasserine, the observation team saw prohibited campaigning by Nidaa Tounes outside the stations. An observer working with Mourakiboun, a local observing organization, said that this election witnessed more of such infringements in Kasserine than the previous election, naming Ennahda and Ahrar Tunis among the parties engaging in such activities.
As the official results were announced, the Independent High Authority for Elections, the independent public body that administered the elections, said that prohibited campaigning led to the loss of one seat for Nidaa Tounes in Kasserine, but the rest of the election results were declared valid. The absence of security incidents across Tunisia on and after election day was also a triumph for the security services and the local government, and although their precautions added a few days of waiting for the official results, this was a small price to pay for preserving the integrity of the democratic process.
Tunisia now faces the new challenge of retaining citizen confidence in the aftermath of the elections. Kasserine saw a lower voter turnout than the average for Tunisia and lower participation by youth. This can be attributed to economic marginalization as well as to lower confidence in the security services, which have been targets of terrorist attacks and are resented by the families of detained and killed Islamist militants. Both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda had tailored their electoral platforms in the governorate to include addressing unemployment and other economic challenges as well as restoring security. But gaining the confidence of Kasserine residents will be difficult for the new government led by Nidaa Tounes.
Despite the challenges faced, the 2014 parliamentary elections were a landmark in the history of Tunisia and a step in the right direction as the country embarks on its journey toward democratization.