Last week, I wrote about some concerns in the lead up to Tunisia’s election: widespread voter pessimism, possible low turnout, and the potential for the manipulation of results or even conflicts on voting day. But Tunisians participated on Sunday in a remarkably large and peaceful election. People across the country waited calmly in line, sometimes for hours, to cast their vote. While the National Democratic Institute (NDI) recorded some challenges with voter registration and the tabulation of results, observers are generally impressed with the legitimacy and fairness of the elections. Ninety percent of 4.1 million registered voters cast ballots on Sunday, a high turnout by global standards. No incidents of violence at polling stations either between police and civilians or between political parties were reported.(Taking no chances, 40,000 policemen were deployed in advance of the elections.)
Al Nahda, Tunisia’s popular Islamist party, delivered on its promise to win a plurality of seats, gaining at least 40 percent of the vote. The final tabulation, forthcoming tomorrow, could push them close to 50 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). Al Nahda is poised to lead, but will still have to find partners to form a coalition government. They are already in discussion with several liberal parties, including the Congress for the Republic (CPR) led by human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, and Ettakatol (the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties), that was part of the legal opposition to Ben Ali.
The biggest upset was the failure of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) at the polls, which likely won less than 5 percent of the vote. Their failure may be the most significant indication of the break with the old regime; despite being the largest opposition party to Ben Ali, party leaders Nejib Chebbi and Maya Jbiri were ultimately seen as too eager to work with the old system. They made the political mistake of accepting Ben Ali’s proposal to reform the government before his ouster in January. In a sign of political maturity, the PDP has recognized the election results as the legitimate desire of the Tunisian people, and promises to advocate for a modern and moderate future for Tunisia as part of the opposition.
In another notable development, the quota system has ensured that a substantial number of seats will go to women. Representative Jane Harman, who led the NDI observer mission, predicted that 30 percent of the seats will go to female candidates. Marwan Muasher, Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Jordan, and co-leader of NDI’s delegation to Tunisia, noted that Tunisian women made up the majority of local elections monitors.
The bottom line is that Tunisians can celebrate legitimate elections ten months after Ben Ali fled the country, a significant achievement. This, however, is just the beginning.
Now that Al Nahda has won a seat at the table, one of few Islamist parties to do so in the Arab world, there are some important questions that need to be answered about how conservative their policies will be. Spokespeople for the party have emphasized that the party will focus on the economy and stability; encouraging foreign investment and delivering on promises for a dignified existence for all Tunisians. However, it remains to be seen if Al Nahda will be able to keep the more conservative elements in Tunisia in check. Calls for strictures on alcohol consumption, penalties for blasphemy, and changes in women’s legal status from more conservative Islamist groups will not only polarize Tunisia’s electorate, but will also have significant consequences for tourism, which generated 7 percent of GDP before the uprising in January. What happens in Tunisia matters for the rest of the Arab world, especially for Egypt as its parliamentary elections begin in November. But while Egypt and Libya (and perhaps eventually Yemen and Syria) will need to navigate the same questions about the relationship between the state and religion, it is hasty to predict that Tunisia will be a model for the region. It has always been an outlier, though we can hope, it will lead the way on Arab democracy.