Sharan Grewal, a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @sh_grewal.

On April 29, the military and internal security forces voted in Tunisia’s municipal elections. This was a historic event, representing the first time in Tunisian history that these forces have been permitted to vote. While registration and turnout were even lower than among civilians, the vote proceeded smoothly.

Tunisia’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba, had banned the military and national guard from voting, fearing that involvement in electoral politics would politicize these forces and thereby facilitate a coup d’état. His successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, concurred, extending the ban to cover the remaining internal security forces. However, in 2017, the parliament, pushed by security unions and secular parties expecting to gain their votes, granted the military and security forces suffrage in the 2018 municipal elections.  

To preserve their neutrality and respect their functions, Tunisia’s electoral commission developed several restrictions on the security forces’ suffrage in consultation with the Ministries of Defense and Interior. The security forces voted one week in advance of civilians, allowing them to provide full security for the May 6 election. They were not permitted to participate in any part of the electoral campaign, including attending partisan meetings—although some political parties such as Nidaa Tounes still attempted to court their votes. To prevent the public from knowing which security personnel registered and voted, there were no lists of registered voters posted outside polling stations, no inking of fingers, no media interviews, and no exit polls. The ballots themselves were mixed with those of civilians before being counted to prevent knowledge of how the security forces voted.

These restrictions received mixed reactions from the military and security forces. While one retired army Colonel-Major was optimistic that with the restrictions, “the neutrality of the military will be observed,”1 others found the restrictions “insulting.” Retired Colonel-Major Mahmoud Mezoughi, president of the retired officers association, argued that “either the military should not have been allowed to vote until the transition to democracy was complete, or they should have been allowed to do so with the full rights available to the rest of the voters.”2

The internal security forces witnessed a similar division. While the National Union of Tunisian Security Force Syndicates (UNSFST) encouraged officers to vote despite these restrictions, the National Syndicate of Internal Security Forces (SNFSI) urged their members to boycott. Chokri Hamada, spokesman for the SNFSI, explained that their right to vote was “conditional:” if they cannot participate in the campaign, “how would they know who they are voting for and what their platforms are?” The SNFSI also argued that the police should remain neutral by abstaining, though at the same time contended that politicians did not deserve their vote since they had not yet passed the “Repression of Attacks on the Armed Forces” bill. Ultimately, out of 111,152 total military and security personnel only 33 percent registered to vote, and only 12 percent of those registered (4 percent of all personnel) showed up to vote. The low turnout in part reflects these forces’ historic neutrality, frustration with the aforementioned restrictions, and—like their civilian counterparts—little general interest in the municipal elections.

Yet while turnout was low, the voting itself proceeded smoothly, with few violations of the restrictions. With this precedent set, it is possible that the security unions will push for the right to vote in upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections as well—this time, with equal rights as their civilian counterparts.

1. Correspondence with the author, April 27, 2018.
2. Correspondence with the author, April 26, 2018.