As Tunisia heads toward the final round of its presidential election on October 14, no one knows whether constitutional lawyer Qaïs Sa‘id or media mogul Nabil Qaraoui (released from jail with corruption charges still pending) will win—an amazing thing in an Arab country. Sa‘id has no party, but has been endorsed by the Ennahda Party, which won 52 out of 217 seats in parliamentary elections on October 6. Qaraoui’s Qalb Tunis party won 38 seats, suggesting that the government formation process might be challenging.
Whichever way it goes, democracy is being consolidated in Tunisia, where there is now a highly competent independent electoral authority and citizens for whom voting is becoming an established habit. As an international observer of the parliamentary elections, I was impressed by the evident commitment of poll supervisors to the integrity and transparency of the process, and touched by the enthusiasm of elderly voters as well as the calm confidence of youths in exercising their rights. As a Tunisian civil society worker said to me, “We have an older generation that is still amazed that it can elect its representatives, and a younger generation for whom this has become normal and expected.”
Voter turnout for the parliamentary elections was deemed low at 41 percent—as compared to 69 percent in the 2014 elections—but there were several mitigating factors. First, the electoral commission carried out an extensive registration campaign a few months ago, increasing the Tunisian electorate from about 5.5 million to nearly 7 million voters. So the 2.9 million who turned out this time were less than the 3.6 million in 2014, but the change was not as dramatic as the turnout percentages suggested.
Second, it was clear to me that Tunisian voters and poll workers alike were experiencing election fatigue, having had to participate in elections three separate times between September 15 and October 14 to elect a president and parliament. “It’s exhausting,” one polling center supervisor confessed to me. And parliamentary elections were bewilderingly complicated for voters, with dozens of parties, coalitions, and independent lists running for the 217 seats.
Another reason that voters are no longer turning out in droves is dissatisfaction with what politicians are producing, particularly in terms of the socioeconomic achievements for which Tunisians have been yearning. Only about a third of Tunisian respondents expressed any confidence in parliament in a March 2019 poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI). The only institution that polled lower was political parties.
However, while such figures might give reason to worry about the fragility of North Africa’s new democracy, it seems that Tunisians are more sophisticated than that. A recently-released Arab Barometer poll showed that 79 percent preferred democracy to other systems of government. Rather than blame the system, Tunisian voters are blaming the politicians who have held office until now—hence the election results that are punishing insiders and promoting outsiders, with every party that has been in office losing support to newcomers.
While Tunisians are dissatisfied with their political leaders and fatigued by the string of recent elections, one thing it seems they do not fear is interference by their security institutions. This is in stark contrast to nearly every other country in the region. In the IRI poll cited earlier, a startling 98 percent expressed trust in the army.
There is much to fret about regarding Tunisian politics. With a highly fragmented parliament, will Ennahda or any other party be able to put together a government that will win the needed support from at least 109 members? After the presidential election, will either Sa‘id or Qaraoui—both entirely untested in politics—try to steer Tunisia in an undemocratic direction? And even if all goes relatively smoothly, will Tunisia be able to replicate its political success in reaching the new vision for the economy that is desperately needed?
None of this is known, as the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections were completely unknown in advance. No single politician or party has a lock on power or on the support of the Tunisian public. And yet in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Tunisians keep moving forward and finding their way through, and past, one challenge after another.